WHEN I was five we lived on the island of Ibiza. My mother and father were both painters. My father was an Irishman, with long black eyes and dainty hands, and he was as bowlegged as a jockey. Even to a child he seemed to be a little man. He had a choking, sudden laugh, and he was often angry.
In the daytime while he was at work I was afraid of him, but in the early evening, after our tea, he would play with me and tell stories and sing in a cracked voice that was now gruff, now high and falsetto, and then I loved him more than my mother and I was glad when he was the last one to kiss me good-night.
My mother was a blonde Scotchwoman. She was a better painter than my father, but I did not know that, because she did the cooking and taught me my lessons and saw that Father was n’t disturbed at his work. She could do that without whining, because she was so sure of herself. She was a very proud woman. Last year the Luxembourg bought one of her pictures. I wish she had been recognized before she died.
We came to Ibiza because Father was tubercular and he hated the Alps. We lived in an isolated place, because he also hated English neighbors. He talked to no one, except in argument, but Mother knew the story of every peasant family in our village, and sometimes in the afternoon she would take her sewing and go to sit gossiping with the priest’s middle-aged housekeeper who had been born in Barcelona.
Mother was a convert and a devout woman. Father went to Mass on Easter, and once or twice during the year. He laughed, and said that that way he had more to confess. He was not a religious man, but I think that he was too lazy in spirit to make a more formal departure from the Faith. Or perhaps he wandered on as he did to please Mother.
I wonder, now, that we were always so careless about infection. When I remember how we lived, I marvel that I did not die, too, as they did. It is strange, because Mother was a sensible person. I think that perhaps she was too proud to admit the existence of the enemy. They both ignored their illness with a courage born of profound resentment. They felt that their human dignity was outraged.
Father would catch his breath in a fit of coughing to demand, ‘Did you ever hear of such nonsense?’
And Mother, whose lungs were then still sound, would throw back her blonde head and say, ‘Outrageous!’ — as if the disease were a falsified butcher’s bill or a neighbor’s goat nibbling in our garden.
I can see them now as they were, and remember how I shared their exasperation.
I suppose that I spent my early childhood in a beautiful place, but I really remember very little about it. There were rocks by the shore, and I used to climb on them and pretend that they were mountains, but of the real mountains that rose behind my back I have only dim memories. I have read in books since then about the color of that sea, hedged by the dusty olive trees, but then I used to pretend that it had a tide, like the tides I read about in English books, and I would run up the shore, screaming, chased by imaginary breakers. In my mind I can still call up their greedy curling tops that mumbled the rocks behind me, while I ran away, screaming. But the wine-dark sea I played beside in fact is only a literary memory.
Near us there lived a woman named Jesusa. She had a she-goat and a little kid. When the kid grew large, Jesusa tied a cloth bag over the goat’s udders to keep the kid from nursing. It was a thief, she said. But it seemed to me that the shoe was on the other foot, and I stole the scissors from my mother’s workbasket and cut the bag away.
Jesusa came out of her house while the kid was having his fill and marched me down the road to my parents, demanding that Father beat me. Father, raging at the interruption in his morning’s work, cursed Jesusa and spanked me. His dainty little hands were hard and strong, but I howled less from pain than from the hurt of outraged justice, and my father laughed and remarked with a final, more goodnatured whack that I might as well get used to injustice soon as late, for it was the general lot.
’I’m ashamed of you, Aengus Waterford,’ said Mother. And there is no doubt she meant it, but her voice carried no sting. I saw them look at each other, and, though my buttocks still smarted with the spanking, I felt all tired and forgotten. I went out to the cliff, fingering Mother’s scissors in my pocket. I intended to throw them into the sea, and make her really angry, but as I looked at the blue-purple water the thought came to me surely that she would not really care at all, that she would only pretend to be angry because I was a child and needed correction.
I turned away from the sea and went back to the house. I put the scissors back in the workbox and went into my own room. I felt so tired, so excluded, so woefully impotent, and the comforting tears would not come.
I lay down on the bed and fell fast asleep.
One afternoon in late autumn I came up from the rocks and heard Father coughing in the garden. He was n’t trying to stop himself or jerk out those angry protests. I looked around the corner of the house. Mother was with him, but she was just standing still, looking at him, and not saying a word. It was n’t what I was used to, and I was scared.
I saw him thrust his handkerchief into his pocket and reach out his hand for hers. After a long time he stopped coughing, and the thick flush drained out of his face. He looked at her, ruefully.
‘Well, Margaret,’ he said, ‘I expect I’m through.’
She looked all around the garden before she met his wet, heavy eyes.
‘Go to bed, Aengus. I’ll put away the paints and things.’
She let him go into the house by himself, and she stood tightening the caps on his paint tubes. I watched her until I knew that he was going to die.
I sat down behind the well, out of her sight, in the sun. I tried to think about Purgatory and how the dead people are happy in their pain because they love God and His will is being done. Only I was still scared, because they had n’t been angry with that coughing and said, ‘Outrageous!’
Father went to bed and did not get up again. In the sun it was warm all the year long, but in winter it was very cold in the house. We had two little charcoal stoves that we kept in his room, but sometimes the smell of them made him cough and he would say, ‘Take the damn things out and let me die like a gentleman.’
I knew that was just his way of joking, and it made me laugh, for by that time I had forgotten that he was going to die.
He died early in the spring. I don’t think I went to the Requiem Mass, for I don’t remember it. All that spring the priest used to come often in the afternoons and talk to Mother in the garden, and once his housekeeper brought me a basket of nice hard little cakes. She said that I could keep the basket, too. I knew that it was because Father was dead.
Mother and I went on the boat to Palma, so that she could buy black clothes. It was a great adventure for me; I had never been off our island before. I kept hearing people in the streets speaking English, our own family language, and I began to realize for the first time that it was not special to us and to the unreal people who made books for us.
In the hotel, that night, Mother cried again, and for the first time I felt that she was a little unreasonable; for Father was happy in the fire that was making him good enough for God, and the world was much bigger and more interesting than I had imagined.
I hung out of the window, watching the people go up and down, and thought that she was being babyish.
I hated to go home, but it was fun to run up the road and tell Jesusa all about the boat and the city of Palma. Jesusa had never been anywhere, and she was beginning to have white hair. She asked me questions and made a fine audience.
Nothing much happened that summer. Mother caught a cold and did n’t get over it, but when I asked her if she was going to die like Father she said, ‘Nonsense!’ so furiously that I felt that I had been foolish.
After I got used to missing Father at bedtime it was really nicer around the house than ever. I never had to be quiet, and I had Mother to myself all the time. We had picnics on the rocks almost every day and I learned to swim. Swimming made Mother’s cold worse, but under the cliff there was a lagoon with a sandy bottom where the water only came waist high, and I could swim there by myself while Mother stood on the shore and worked at her last picture, a marine. I liked it because it showed the point our house was on, and the patch of orange was our own roof.
That September Mother began to talk to me about England, and my aunt and uncle and my cousins who lived there. My uncle was a vicar, which was something like a priest, and my aunt was Mother’s sister, Janet. I had two girl cousins and a boy cousin, and they all spoke English, like me.
It seemed a very good idea when Mother suggested that I go to visit them while she went to Switzerland to be away from the sea until she got over her cold.
She took me to Barcelona, and Aunt Janet was there to meet us. Barcelona was a big city, bigger than Palma, even, and the people in the streets spoke a funny language. You could understand them, because it was like the priest and his housekeeper, but it was different from the island talk. So a lot of people spoke their language, too, just as a lot of people spoke English.
I was so excited by the new world that I hardly noticed my mother’s going.
She called me away from the window and pressed her mouth against my cheeks.
‘You have n’t been kissing her like that, Margaret?’
‘How silly, Janet! Of course I have! . . .
‘Good-bye, darling. You’re going to have a fine winter. Janet, will you take her to Mass, Sundays?’
‘Yes, dear, if you like.’
I pulled away from her arms.
‘Mother, I saw four motor cars!’
I ran back to my window.
Why did Aunt Janet think that mothers should n’t kiss their little girls like that? Saying good-bye was horrid. I hoped that it was all over.
So I went away to Wiltshire, to another life in another world.
My uncle was Vicar of Lawton Benger, a little village midway between Bath and Swindon. It was a meagre living and he hated it. The bumpkins, he called his flock. But he had a fine Early English church, and a big, square, stone vicarage of which only about half of the rooms were furnished.
His name was Cedric Claude Somerset Talbot-Slade, and he was no bigger than my father, but I did n’t think of him as a small man because he was so narrow and straight, like a soldier. He said that his family had offered him the Army, but he took the Church instead, because he disliked the tropics. In my mind as a child I could see the Army and the Church extended on platters, like fruit tart and trifle. No Army, thanks. Just a small helping of Church and a cup of tea.
My Aunt Janet was his first cousin, and sixteen years younger than he. When I came to live with them she was twenty-five, and her oldest child, Noel, was seven. It was her father’s Scottish blood that had made her face, big-boned and ruddy under a mop of rusty hair. She was not beautiful like my mother; her cheeks were too high and her teeth were prominent; but she had sad gray eyes and a fresh, merry laugh. She was a coltish, innocent sort of person. Before the journey from Barcelona to Lawton Benger was over I had grown fond of her. Poor Aunt Janet.
My cousins were named Noel Cedric Cadogan Talbot-Slade, Caroline Elizabeth Somerset Talbot-Slade, and Francesca Beaufort Talbot-Slade. When Aunt Janet told me their names I felt humbled that I was simply Mary Margaret Waterford.
We drove up to the door just before tea time in the dusk of a clear October afternoon. They heard the carriage wheels and all came out. The three children rushed at Aunt Janet, crushing her. Uncle Cedric paid the driver. He was wearing his cassock. I thought, ‘So he’s almost exactly like a priest.’
I stood to one side, eyeing the children. The fresh, wet English air was still strange in my nostrils. There was a strange look to the trees and grass, familiar and unfamiliar. It was so different from Ibiza, and still it was homelike. I was only six, and not given to examining my emotions, but I was shaken with a powerful feeling, not loneliness or shyness, that made me stand aside, staring.
I suppose that I must have been tired with the trip, and frightened by the actual moment of meeting my new relatives, but that memory is gone. There only remains in me the cool, moist evening, the gravel walk and the laurel hedges, a bird talking in the ivy, and the penetrating, drenching sense of familiarity, the realization that I had always lived in a foreign country.
My cousins were, in fact, a little shy at meeting me. They prolonged the wild, puppyish greeting of their mother beyond its natural term, so that the first to notice me was Uncle Cedric.
‘Well, well,’ he said, ‘and how is the Spanish lady?’
The lovely evening blew against my face, the sweet air was so friendly, so native to my nostrils. ‘I’m Irish, Scotch, and English,’ I thought. ‘And I’m not a lady. He’s just trying to be funny,‘
‘I’m very well, thank you,’ I said. ‘I did n’t get sick on the boat, either.’
I let him touch my cheek with his dry, inturning lips.
The carriage rolled away, and now the three children stood and stared at me. I knew their names, Noel, Carol, Franny. Carol was chubby; Franny was dark and small, like the peasant children.
Noel gave me a long look out of blue eyes.
‘Are you afraid of mice?’ he said.
I shook my head. ‘I like mice.’
‘That’s good,’ said Noel. ‘Then there’s one apiece.’
‘We found a nest and four babies,’ said Franny.
Carol stared at her toes and whispered, ‘In the chimney.’
‘Your hair’s almost as yellow as mine,’ said Noel. ‘We expected you’d look like a nigger.’
He came closer to me, smiling. I felt no resentment. It was n’t like Uncle Cedric’s calling me a Spanish lady.
‘I can swim,’ I said. ‘I learned this summer.’
‘They can’t,’ replied Noel, jerking his head toward his sisters, and I felt his approval.
Someone suggested that the new cousins kiss, and then we went into the house.
I think that Noel felt how strange everything must be to me, for he took my hand in his and led me along. He was a very sympathetic child.
The first Sunday it rained so hard that Aunt Janet could not take me to Mass in Chippenham, and I went to church with the children. It was Communion Sunday, and the service was familiar. I thought nothing of its being in English, for this was England, and I supposed that it was done that way here. It was also a delightful, important feeling, having the priest a member of one’s own family.
The next Sunday I asked to go again, and after that no one said anything about taking me to Mass. So easily I slipped away from the Faith.
Mother died in March. I think that she would have lived if we had stayed in Ibiza. But after she went away Father must have become much more real to her than I was and it was easy to let go.
I could read then, and I still have one or two printed notes that she sent me, always with a present. They told me that an old man she met had a goat that looked just like Jesusa’s, that the snow would come to my ears if I dug a hole and stood in it, that her chambermaid had a black kitten called Toni, who sneezed when the sun got in its eyes. They sent me her love, but without many words.
She wrote to Aunt Janet that frequent letters might make me homesick, and that it was better to be sensible. I think that she was right, and that she learned it by finding how homesick it made her to write to me.
I’m not trying to paint at all [she wrote to Aunt Janet]. This absurd feeling of tiredness all the time, and then coughing half the day. It’s so humiliating. But I’m getting better.
You know, Aengus’s last pictures are all with Lomax, whom he always suspected of trying to do him, rather. If you get up to town I wish you’d look in and see what they’re asking, and what’s being shown.
I can just hear him stamping about the garden with a letter from Lomax in his hand, and cursing so — God be kind to his dear, dear soul. We used to have such fun, Janet. That was my life, out there, us together under that hot good sun before we began coughing like simpletons. This is something else, the shadow of it. That was real. How he’d hate to see me wasting my time, dragging about in this nonsensical place. And all these smug invalids with their fevers. Illness makes people so smug.
I babble like a querulous old woman. Never mind, dear.
Love to my dear little Molly. Slip it into the conversation somewhere, or if she mentions me you can say, ‘And by the way, she just wrote and sent love.’
I’ll write you a more heartening letter when I’m feeling vigorous, in a few days. With love.
That was her last letter. There were a few reports from the sanatorium doctors, and then the telegram that told us she was dead.
When Aunt Janet told me I was frightened because I thought that I should have to go back to Ibiza and live alone. I felt better when she said that I should never have to go away. And Mother was in Heaven. It sounded a much nicer place than Purgatory, because it was comfortable and happy at once. I asked Uncle Cedric, too, if he was sure it was Heaven and not Purgatory. I thought that Aunt Janet must have been mistaken. But he said, ‘Certainly,’ and that I was not to bother my head with notions about Purgatory, and his cassock whipped about his legs in the wind up the garden, outward and visible sign of his authority in such matters.
I hoped that she would not be too lonely in Heaven without Father. It would probably be some time before he was good enough for God, because he used to miss Mass so often, and swear so.
I remembered his cracked singing, —
To cast me off discourteously,
And I your lover been so long,
Delighting in your company,’ —
and Mother looking at us and saying, ‘Tell me the truth, Aengus — have I married an Irish tenor?’
I cut the cloth bag off the goat and he spanked me, and then they forgot all about me. And something, what was it, about throwing her scissors away? Only I did n’t. What was it that happened? Some of it would come back, but not all.
Suddenly I began to cry, and it was not because I missed Mother or wanted her, but because she was in Heaven and Father was in Purgatory, and they would be lonely for each other.
Carol and Franny came upon me crying, on the floor beside my bed with my face hid in the coverlet. I peeped at them out of the corner of my eye, but I went on crying.
They stood close together, awkward in the face of my distress. I had become an orphan, which gave me an importance and set me apart. They were not imaginative children, but the only effect of that, in this instance, was to make them assume that my grief was greater than it was. I pressed the coverlet closer against my face, and sobbed afresh. My sobs were genuine, but I was highly conscious of them standing there, impressed and pitying.
After a time they went away without speaking to me, and then my tears flowed freer, relieved of self. I was so sorry for Mother and Father, so sorry.
Someone knelt on the floor beside me and put an arm around my shoulders. It was Noel. I shrugged him off.
‘Go away,’ I said.
He let his arm fall, but instead of going away he sat down on the floor.
‘Molly. Molly, I want to show you something.’
I sniffed and wiped my nose on the thick linen, keeping my head averted.
‘Carol and Franny told me where you were. I want to show you something. Molly, it’s a present for you.’
I looked around at him.
‘Who sent me a present?’
My throat was choked with tears and the woeful sound of my own voice nearly sent me off again.
‘Nobody. Me. Molly, it’s something I’m going to give you.’
I used the underside of the coverlet for a handkerchief and straightened it down so that it would n’t show.
‘I want you to have it, Molly, only you’ll have to come out in the bicycle shed, where they won’t see us. It’s a secret.’
He nodded at me kindly, gravely, his dark blue eyes wide with sympathy. He got up and pulled me to my feet.
‘Come on out,’ he said.
We slipped out of the house by the scullery and went into the bicycle shed. Noel pulled the door to. The light came down dimly through a dusty skylight.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘they did n’t see us. We’ll be all right, I expect, if you keep still.’
His hand went into his pocket, but he did not withdraw it at once.
‘This,’ he said seriously, ‘is something very, very beautiful and it belongs to me. Now Carol and Franny would rather have it than anything in the whole world, and if they found out I’d given it to you, and you not even my sister, they’d probably never speak to us again. So look here. Don’t you let them see you’ve got it, and if they do see, you just pretend you found it, and then I’ll say, “See here, that’s mine. Give it back.” ’
I became anxious. ‘And then do I have to give it back?’
‘Oh, no. You just say, “Finders keepers.” And I’ll let on to be in such a wax, and I’ll say, “Very well, you pig,” and hardly notice you for the rest of the day. But I won’t mean it, you know.’
My eyes dwelt on him with love and admiration.
‘Can I see it now?’
Slowly, slowly, he drew out his hand and opened it.
‘Do you like it?’ he asked, anxious. ‘Do you think it’s beautiful?’
I thought it was the most beautiful thing that I had ever seen. It was a little gold penknife, shaped like a woman’s slipper. There was a bit of blue glass at the instep for a buckle. I took it out of his hand with delicate, lustful fingers and stood opening the blade and closing it again. In our island I had owned very few toys; I was not cloyed with possessions. My own, my own beautiful dear little knife.
Noel watched me and was satisfied.
‘I daresay you’ll not feel like crying for ever so long, now,’ he remarked.
‘Oh, Noel,’ I said.
I pulled aside the top of my pinny and buttoned it away in the pocket of my sailor blouse. We looked at each other with peaceful, rested faces, wonderfully content.
‘I wish I was your sister, Noel,’ I said humbly.
He nodded, and then he smiled a full, gentle smile.
‘Oh, well,’ he said, ‘I’ll marry you when you grow up, so it will come to much the same thing.’
He took my hand and we walked quietly out into the garden. Suddenly we began to laugh and scream and run up and down the paths like savages.