Sparks of Dusk
posted Thursday, 18 November 2004
The old lady rocked gently in her chair, with icy stare upon the single orange bar of the electric fire. Agatha's skin visibly shrivelled, despite the relative lack of all-round heat. She dreamed of past loves, those originally encountered by means of either natural family bloodcourses or the fizzing streams of extramural passions. Past passions and past hopes trooped by like a proud butterfly infantry: blow-kissing grandchildren, mocking cousins, mooning elder sisters, maiden aunts, dead husbands in green uniforms, righteous grown-up daughters, blunt cutting businessmen disguised as her sons, her own father with red teardrops instead of eyes, the mother she had never even known and, finally, those other strangers who had been Agatha's lovers. They saluted, like toy soldiers, as they passed between the bright bone of the fire and Agatha's rocking-chair. Her face of knitted flesh laddered horizontally so that the mouth could smile. But this march-past faded as the light was sucked from the parlour window by a widow's peak of a thunderhead beating the night to the sky by at least half-an-hour. She listened to the rumbles with a shiver. Soon, she would need to crack her sinews apart so as to reach the light switch.
A creature with beady eyes scampered on all fours along by the skirting-board. So common was this rodent's foray from the dark underfloor, that she felt no need to carry to her soul the freight of frights it had made available to the weathering silence. Yet she knew, of course, it was not really a rodent but the midget miniature of an ex-lover, crawling on hands and knees, seeping blood at two eye-sockets, unknowing whither he crawled. Pity welled to her heart from the water in the brain. She clear-thought herself upright, once flaccid muscles stiffening to attention. That lover of forgotten name had long ago tormented her soul. Now, she would show him that kindness always wins.
Eventually, she cornered him between the sideboard and the fireplace.
"You were cruel to me once. But now I'll be kind to you," she said, placing the poor mite upon her wrinkled palm. He had evidently been wounded by a rival for her affections, since crimson stained his chest pelt from an apparent sword-prick. The march-past had been the first occasion many of her lovers had met each other, she guessed. She stroked his back, moistened the tip of a finger in her spit to polish his tiny shoes and then smarmed his hair with it. He squirmed against the heel of her thumb, not knowing in whose safe hands he had found himself. She untwirled his winkle with an embroidery needle and, smiling, plucked it with a tiny wrench from the rest of the body. Pity she had no vinegar handy...
The thunderhead dropped like a removal man having lost purchase on a hefty wardrobe upstairs. She switched on the light and settled back into the rocker with a sigh. She hoped the man who sold punnets of shrimps would be here in time for high tea. She dozed off and dreamed for the first time that day ... of a little boy who knelt at a nursery window, so that anybody strolling around the orchard garden in the shadow of the tall rambling house would, if they cared, just be able to discern his tousled carrottop and, with something like ancient zoom lenses, draw into close-up the boy's own swivelling bowls of sight. His knees were chafed, knickerbockers damp, since he had been dream-frozen into this position for most of the hot summer day. An ominous thunder roll sounded across his ear-drums. A flock of butterflies paraded through the cabbage patch in the garden below, their droopy wings draining the sunflowers of their gold by miscegenation of science and myth. He prayed at this window for one last vision of a ghost girl: a small mite, in pinafore frock, with cascades of peachblossom hair and flickering svelte legs. This girl's face was a delight, even through the haze of shortening sight.
The summer garden had no real people in it (other than the family's factotum): so the boy considered that a ghost was naturally second best. The rest of the household were unseasonably bed-ridden: ancient maiden aunts and older teasing cousins poisoned by the produce of the vegetable plot. The factotum was the only one able to minister to their daily needs, whose flat-capped and shrapnelled brain contained only demeaning loyalty. So the little boy was left more or less to his own devices. Toys were thrown into corners, where real tears sparkled at the ever-opening dollseyes of the night. His chair was on iron hoops, rocking in rhythm to the silence: a rocking-horse snickering in dream. Night was time for harsh reality. Day was for dream. And the ghost girl in the pinafore was the boy's anchor in such meanderings of the soul.
This particular afternoon, the flat cap could be seen floating along above the string-bean poles like an oriental sea-swagger. The factotum had just visited the pagoda at the edge of the boy's sweep of antique cinemascopic vision, now traipsing with the late hoe and the meticulously burnished garden fork's diamond daggers which left a scintilla of fireflies in its wake. Then, the dipping sun, having shrugged off the thunderhead, exploded with a thousand sloping shafts of the sky's cathedral light, leaning like translucent cantilever stanchions of gold through the unscrumped trees. Following the factotum's departure, the ghost girl came into view, askip with the scrolling ropelight of her overblown halo. She then made a grab for this circlet of angelic charisma and proceeded to roll it like a hoop between the maze of sweet peas. Finally, she yanked it in two with a deft manipulation of her small hand and, in the manner of a snake-whip, spun like a top the turnip she had just plucked with her long fingers from the factotum's root plot. Her butterfly hairclip glinted as she darted across the manicured lawn, with the green of the grass paradoxically brightening in the descending sun.
The boy's eyes were engorged with sunset and began to melt upon his dewy cheeks. He was in love with the ghost girl. The lithe flashing limbs became a slow motion ritual in his deep reverent adoration of her. He prayed that he would be able to shift from his kneeling position, held for most of the nigh endless day, sinews cracking, strange muscles stiffening. He yearned to visit the garden in person, despite the aunts and cousins forbidding him to do so, on pain of worsening illnesses in the house, through worry and disappointment. He never understood their meaning. At night, he would lay awake trying to fathom such ways of the world. His tears turned to sour vinegar at his lips, as he drowsed in the heavy dusk.
"You're so wistful!" The ghost girl suddenly stood beside him in the nursery, with shrivelled voice. Her face was bruised like a windfall...
Stirred from a seemingly ownerless dream, Agatha looked from the window for the shrimp man but saw only a little boy in a wheelchair being rocked by the factotum among the towering sunflowers. The boy's own tiny head nodded rhythmically with the silence of the ever-turning wheels, as he went to touch a particularly beautiful butterfly nearby. But he suddenly spotted the white poppy of a little girl's face at the nursery window and, zooming closer, he saw dollseyes unblinkingly open - with the largest ever darning-needle sparkling amid steepled fingers. As her own eyes fastened on his, she loudly hissed his forgotten name.
(First published 'Peeping Tom' 1990)
1. Paul Dracon left...
Thursday, 4 August 2005 6:52 pm
I encounter an "overblown halo" from time to time! Excellent piece.