Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Still Life with Self-Portrait - Part 4

Please read first Part 1, Part 2, and Part3.

I don’t know how long I spent in there, motionless on the small stool, dreaming a life that wasn’t mine. I must have fallen asleep at some point.

Dirty daylight was filtering through dust and cobwebs.

My back was stiff, not painful but simply immobile, and it seemed impossible for me even to move my head. My face felt horribly parched, as if mud had been smeared on it and had dried on my skin, holding it in an aching grip. Yet I could not touch my face. My arms were not mine anymore. And if they were, I did not know where to find them.

Was I paralysed? Cold panic clutched my heart. What a mistake that had been, to have fallen asleep like that, to get ill maybe, to die… I tried to open my mouth but no sound came out of my chafed lips. How could I call for help? Who could hear me in this abandoned attic?

A shadow moved – a simple stir at the edge of my vision. There was somebody there. I heard the rustling of stiff fabric, the slow soft knocking of heels on the wooden planks. A moment later I saw her. A woman, her back turned at me, her stance proud, black hair descending in large curls to her waist.

My breathing halted.

She turned around too slowly, then walked towards me, almost majestically, her features taking clearer contours as she emerged from the haze.

It was Antoinette. I knew it at once. Antoinette, wearing my dress, with Lila draped over her right shoulder like a negligent ermine.

My heart had a painful syncope.

She bent low and, for a second, her breath brushed my rigid cheek. Then, with a smile and a curious gentleness, she lowered the veil over my face.

Through the black veil, I watched her as she turned around and left the attic. I have never since seen her again.

The End

Rene Magritte - False Mirror, 1928

Friday, June 20, 2008

Still Life with Self-Portrait - Part 3

Please read Part 1 and Part 2 first, if you haven't done that yet.

Brown Lady of Raynham by Dorothy, Viscountess Townshend (née Walpole)

That late afternoon, soon after my grandmother’s guests left, I climbed to the attic with a mirror.

The shadows were getting long. I realised that, in my hurry, I had not thought of bringing a lamp with me. Disappointed, I decided to return another time, when I noticed the tinderbox on the dressing table. It must’ve been in a drawer and I had left it outside, although I didn’t remember doing this.

The wicks still had a good length and, after a few attempts, I succeeded in lighting the candle ends. Their flames flickered, then settled into a slow dance of shadows on the rotten bed sheets.

I sat down in front of great-great-aunt Antoinette’s portrait and, holding the mirror at arm’s length, I juxtaposed my image to hers. She seemed to be smiling that evening, in the candle light, so I curled my lips upwards a little to mimic her smile.

Lady Wetherill had been right. I was surprised I hadn’t noticed the resemblance before. The perfect oval of the cheek, the cascading black hair, the proud arch of the eyebrows, the full and… cruel mouth. It was almost as if I had served as a model to the anonymous painter.

I didn’t think I was like that, but I had never truly contemplated myself in a mirror before. In fact, I had always thought of myself as a tomboy and not as the young woman I was seeing now. How much more did we share beside the physical appearance?

The hairbrush was on the dressing table. On a whim, I took it and started brushing my hair with it. How good it felt, soothing, almost as if a light hand were stroking my hair.

I smiled. I had everything I needed. Even a better mirror than the one I’d brought - the portrait itself.

I gathered my hair to the left and used the gold hairpin to keep it in place. I dropped the shawl and pulled my dress down a bit, to reveal just the upper roundness of my shoulders. That was better.

A breeze tickled my exposed skin, made the candles’ flames flicker.

I tied the green scarf around my neck.

On the table, I noticed a silver timepiece, a small watch that could be worn as a medallion. The watch had a cracked glass, but the tiny needle marking the seconds continued its fine movement on the dial. I was amazed it still showed the right time. Or was it?

An urgency knotted my stomach. It was almost eight o’clock. In the sumptuous dining room, they would have supper soon. They would wait for me but not for long – they were used by now with my childish indiscipline and Mrs. Adair would give me some bread and milk later in the kitchen.

But I would have to return soon, while I could still take one of the candles with me. It was dangerous to find my way in complete darkness; many steps were rotten and one could easily fall through them.

An owl sent a plaintive hoot into the settling night. A flame died. The attic had become just blackness beyond the wavering glow of the candles.

In the third drawer, I found the antelope gloves. They were small and only slightly worn. Did they still carry the marks of her admirer’s hopeless kisses?

Carefully, I pulled them on my hands, wondering if they still held inside the disease that had killed her. If I could somehow catch it over the gap of years. They fitted me perfectly. They felt warm, as if their owner had just dropped them on the dressing table. I suddenly imagined a whip in them, cracking on a man’s bare shoulders. I imagined his blood spraying from the cut on the fine leather.

But there were no stains on the gloves. Just the patina of age that has somehow quieted the lustre of the pearls.

I took one gloved hand to my nose. There was a faint scent of lilac and lilies of the valley. I closed my eyes.

To be continued...

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A Meme

Taffiny has tagged me for this meme of various things. I’m giving it a try but I’m afraid my answers won’t be too interesting.

What were you doing 10 years ago?

My memory is weird, so much that sometimes it would scare me if I would allow myself to think about it. On one hand I can’t forget a thing - I never write down birthdays for instance - on the other hand there are in it huge gaps that I can’t account for.

I really do not know what I was doing ten years ago. Living. Working. A trip to Germany. Dreaming. Writing. Nothing significant enough, obviously, to be singled out as an event. Only some scenes, and mostly feelings, engraved in memory.

Breakfast in Frankfurt, on a rainy Sunday morning, watching the wet cars on the wet street and listening to classical music… The wonder of German pastries in a little snack bar in Düsseldorf – appreciated with famished senses… Melancholy and beauty on the Rhine, thinking of Heinrich Heine’s poem, “Die Lorelei”…

And, yes, I think we were just starting to look into buying our house.

Five things on your to-do list for today

- Pick-up my daughter from school (it’s the last day before the summer holidays) and my other daughter from day care;
- Organise the last details for my older daughter’s birthday party, which – as we did last year – we are celebrating one month in advance for fear that all the friends and schoolmates she wanted to invite would be away in July;
- Spend time in the garden, not working, just enjoying it;
- Watch the second Harry Potter movie with the kids – and hope they won’t get too caught into the action;
- Write (maybe).

What would you do if you were a billionaire?

This is one of my favourite daydreams…

After helping all that I could possibly help, people and animals, within reason obviously, I would:

- Write, write, write, write, write…
- Buy a house on the beach and one in Manhattan;
- Travel to all the earthly places I’ve ever wanted to visit;
- Buy a trip to the International Space Station.

Being a millionaire wouldn’t be that bad either…

What are three of your bad habits?

- Speeding;
- Daydreaming (although not while speeding);
- Procrastination.

What are some snacks you enjoy?

- pistachios, almonds, peanuts;
- dried figs;
- sesame sticks or pretzels.

What were the last five books you read?

This one’s easy. I have a habit of keeping track of all the books I read by writing down the author and the title in a beautiful, silk-bound, old notebook.

- The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black and Tony Di Terlizzi (my seven-year old is reading this the second time);
- The Thanatonauts by Bernard Werber (think “astronauts” on the continent of the dead…);
- My Laugh Comes Last by James Hadley Chase;
- Play Now… Kill Later and
- Die Anytime, After Tuesday! both by Carter Brown.

I don’t know if you are familiar with Chase and Brown, or even heard of them.

James Hadley Chase (René Brabazon Raymond) was a British writer, highly influenced by the American crime and gangster writers. He was hailed as “the thriller maestro of the generation”. He died in 1985.

Carter Brown is the pseudonym of the British-Australian author of crime fiction Alan Geoffrey Yates. He started writing full time at 30, in 1953, and wrote about 150 crime stories that sold tens of millions of copies. He died in 1985.

Obviously this is very light literature, with no profound thoughts or feelings, but entertaining. Something I’m not embarrassed to admit that I need and seek every now and then.

What are five jobs you have had?

My actual job plus all the work at home as a mother and a wife.

What are five places where you have lived?


I know the answers to the last two questions are not real answers, but that’s all I can offer for now…

And now it’s my turn to tag five people:


Good luck!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Still Life with Self-Portrait - Part 2

To read Part 1, go here.

I had stumbled upon it while searching for my pet ferret Lila, who liked to run away all the time. That time I feared the kitchen cat had chased her into even deeper hiding than usual.

The secret was a dressing table, made of rich mahogany, inlaid with nacre and gold leaves. A rococo jewel for a lady’s boudoir not for a decrepit attic. Where a mirror should have been, the oval frame, covered in a black sheer veil, held the portrait of a woman – at first I thought I had glimpsed my reflection in it until I noticed its coloured immobility.

Unease at this strangeness clasped my heart.

“Lila!” I called, my shaky voice muffled by the soft debris of years.

Only the bats squeaked. A draught prickled the skin on my neck.

Reason insisted I should leave. I got closer.

There was a matching stool in front of the table, covered in what used to be white damask. I sat on it, my shallow breathing entirely too noisy, while I gathered the resolve to lift the veil. It partly disintegrated in my hands, and I drew back sharply, repulsed by its soft sticky feel of crow silk, of sepulchral shroud.

The painting was amateurish, in rough traits and colours too raw, yet the artist had managed to convey... his love, I thought, of all things. Yet the young woman’s perfect beauty was not kind to the spectator’s soul. The harmony seemed somehow tinged, incomplete. The face was vaguely familiar, and I realised that it represented the woman in the great hall, my great-great-aunt Antoinette as I was going to find out later.

Yellowed candle ends, grotesquely thickened by blobs of long melted wax, stood in a semicircle in front of the portrait.

Other objects were spread on the dressing table. A gold hairpin, almost buried in dust. A hairbrush, that I didn’t dare touch, holding a single black hair. A string of pearls. An empty perfume bottle made of thick Bohemian crystal.

Without thinking, I lifted the ornate silver cork and brought my nose to the small bottle. How could it be? The fragrance was strong, a mix of lilacs and lily of the valley, as if the perfume in it were still fresh.

Suddenly it occurred to me that the black veil was a bereavement veil and the dressing table a pagan shrine. Had a desperate lover, no doubt an obscure servant in the household, consumed here his untold adoration? His tearing pain at her death? Were these objects that he had gathered, stolen even, only to transform them into the paraphernalia of his worship?

The air seemed heavy with pain, or passion, or death – suddenly too dense to endure, suffocating. I dropped the cork on the table and fled.

I told no one about this and decided not to return. Despite this, I was back the next morning. And the next. And the next.

Every day I felt more familiar with the place, more at… home.

Every day I returned downstairs a little later, not wishing to leave at all, and spent my evenings in sickly reveries or pestering Mrs. Adair with questions whose purpose nobody could have fathomed.

Every day I made a discovery. The cork was back in its place. Objects I hadn’t noticed the day before were suddenly lying on the table or in half-open drawers. However, I was not of the distracted kind. I was thorough, I was neat, I was logical, and I prided myself with this. Nobody could have come there because in the all-encompassing dust there were no other traces but mine. Yet, drawers I was certain I had closed lay invitingly open. The veil I thought I had pulled down over the portrait before leaving was partly lifted, revealing a mischievous eye.

I blamed this confusion, this lost trace of time on the half-trance induced in my brain by the stale air, by the muffled silence, by the heavily filtered daylight. It had to be I who put them there, only I, who mesmerised by an object, spent often hours holding it, or simply looking at it.

One day it was a small silver broach adorned with rubies, on another a scarf of green silk, then a book of William Blake’s poems – a dedication inside in a flowery woman’s handwriting, To Antoinette, Love, Mother – or a pair of antelope gloves embroidered with silk and pearls, a broken fountain pen, a torn slipper...

A hundred times, I resolved not to go there anymore and every day I sneaked back, not able to resist the odd sick spell the place cast on me.

To be continued...

Friday, June 13, 2008

My Lupins

They bring me much joy, my darling lupins. I love them, I am proud of them.

Not just because their huge clusters of flowers are so esthetically pleasant or because every time I burrow my nose in them I’m competing with cute scary bumblebees every bit just as intoxicated by their fine fragrance as I am, but also because they are so strong, so resilient. Leave it to them to spread through roots and seeds just about everywhere, ruthlessly but elegantly keeping all other plants in the shadow of their splendid palm leaves. I have big confidence in them.

We have a very cheeky albeit delicious raspberry bush that’s been invading the flower bed and the lawn with unbelievable tenacity. I transplanted a lupin at that end of the bed and it’s keeping its ground easily.

The dictionary shows lupinus as the origin of the name, meaning wolfish, from the belief that the plant ravenously exhausts the soil. Looking them up on the Internet, I found out that, in fact, lupins can fix nitrogen from the atmosphere into ammonia, thus fertilising the soil for other plants. Some (the sweet lupins, as opposed to the bitter ones) are edible – for instance, some beans are commonly sold in a salty solution in jars, like olives or pickles - although some varieties are poisonous.

It’s too bad that their flowers last only for a short while.

Like all beautiful and pleasant things in life, they have to be cherished while they are.

At least, their palm leaves grace us the whole summer…

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Still Life with Self-Portrait - Part 1

Constructive criticism will be much appreciated; it will be received with gratitude but with no attempt at justifications...

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw by John Singer Sargent

“When has your hair grown so dark, child?” Lady Martinet said, stroking my luscious curls. “You’re turning into a great beauty, my dear.”

“Don’t you find she looks like Antoinette more and more every day?” Lady Wetherill said, in her voice that resembled a bird’s trill on a spring morning.

By chance, we had stopped right underneath the portrait of this great-great-aunt they were evoking and Lady Wetherill turned up her round wrinkled face to consider the painting. Antoinette’s smile had a contemptuous quality that afternoon, as if she were expressing her disapproval at such an unworthy comparison.

I shuddered and pulled my woollen shawl tighter around my shoulders. Did she shake her head or was it just a play of light from the stained-glass windows? I had always believed she was beautiful and had felt a deep fascination for her, but the portrait in the hall also intimidated me. It seemed to me the painter had hidden a whiff of something in her perfect features, something I could not pinpoint, so subtle that you had to call it an illusion, yet undeniably present.

I smiled, and curtsied, and hurried down the steps to the garden, followed by the two old ladies.

Throughout the tea, I couldn’t take my mind off Lady Wetherill’s remark. Had they known her sometime in their distant childhood? Could it be that they remembered her?
I longed to hear a more intellectual opinion for I was quite saturated with what the cook, Mrs. Adair, or the housekeeper, Mrs. Alexander, mumbled about her, just before they crossed themselves with frantic assiduity. They had experienced quite a scare when I first asked who the woman in the portrait was, and frowned at me every time I mentioned her name again as if by chance.

Their knowledge was hearsay and old wives’ tales, woven with superstitious fears. Even their grandmothers, who had served Antoinette, were young girls at the time she died. Yet their convictions were immutable. A wicked witch, they called her. A murderess, they whispered, crossing themselves again for the safety of their souls, and for the souls of the many suitors who have seemingly disappeared into thin air. I absorbed these stories with wide eyes and eager ears, by the kitchen hearth, not really believing half of them.

She had been my great-grandfather’s older sister. The family chronicle only mentioned her briefly – a twig on the family tree cut early and long forgotten. I knew she had died of typhoid fever more than seventy years ago, at twenty-nine, unmarried, in the prime of her beauty. It was good punishment in Mrs. Adair’s opinion, for all her wicked deeds.

But in the portrait in the hall – an early masterpiece of the famous painter F. – she was alive. She was the embodiment of beauty, of superior self-assurance. I sought to be like her.

To my disappointment, I had no chance to enquire further about Antoinette; when my grandmother’s other guests arrived, any meaningful conversation was drowned in the usual torrent of frivolities.

I endured them graciously, just enough to fulfil my social duties, then hurried back inside the humid stone walls. I had in there a well-guarded secret. One that gnawed at my curiosity and always left it unsatisfied. My secret was in the highest attic, where bats hung from rotten beams. It lay hidden by heavy cobwebs, and forgotten bed sheets hung to dry, and dust thick as two fingers.

To be continued...