The following is from Alison MacLeod’s story collection, All the Beloved Ghosts. MacLeod is a novelist, short story writer and essayist. She is the author of Unexploded, The Changeling, The Wave Theory of Angels, and Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction. Alongside her writing, MacLeod has served as a judge for numerous prestigious prizes and has been awarded The Eccles British Library Writer’s Award, among others. She lives in Brighton, England.
Sylvia Wears Pink in the Underworld
It’s a cheek for me to say it, but this is no place for you. ‘A cheek’. Not our native usage. I know. After all these years, I pick, I choose. English, North American. North American, English. I imagine you did the same. And wasn’t it sweet to see Ted, in Birthday Letters, celebrating, not your 1956 Veronica Lake ‘fringe’, but your Veronica Lake ‘bangs’, or, if I’m being honest, your ‘bang’. A fond concession to our vernacular–even if he got it wrong.
More than once. Couldn’t you just swat him with a dish towel and a newly-wed’s grin. My what?
I see you smooth your apron and its scattering of tiny red hearts. He winks at you over the Observer, and you turn away, knowing how grab-able your waist looks from behind. You concentrate on your Tomato Soup Cake recipe. Two cups sifted flour. One tablespoon baking powder . . . You long for the reliability of Campbell’s condensed tomato soup. You feel wistful at the memory of those bright red-and-white cans which you skated on as a child across your mother’s kitchen floor.
In the distance, near the entrance to the cemetery, three elderly women in dark woollen coats look my way–and yours–their jaws as square as paving slabs. (Don’t ever let anyone tell you there aren’t some advantages in not making it past the menopause.) Above them, above us all, in the strumpety June sunshine, St Thomas’s dark tower rises like a reproachful finger.
There seems no denying it. You were a handful. It seems there were times when you could have worn out life itself, but the stony digit of that tower disapproves too much.
Of course. Thoughtless of me. The view from the Underworld must be limited; like the view round a pillar in a back row of the stalls. Only–yes–your ‘pillar’ is big, broad and everlasting.
Through the dandelion spores of the centuries and across the buttercupped lane, the most ancient graves nestle closer to the church than yours, as no doubt you recall from Sunday afternoon strolls with Ted, and Christmas Day trudges through the snow and the mud with the in-laws.
How wrong you must have looked here.
When I arrived in 1987, I discarded every bright skirt and top I’d packed. I was afraid of blotting the streetscapes of England with too much colour. Like you, I learned how to be less vivid. I found Topshop, a hounds-tooth skirt and a dark, oversized cardigan.
Ahead of us, a mother and her two young daughters, both in pink Crocs, are running in a careless hopscotch across the slabs of the dead. I want to cheer at the twenty-first-century triumph of those Crocs, here of all places, but–yes–I understand. The living are thoughtless, running across graves, canoodling at kissing gates, making brass rubbings, and–you’re quite right–being overfamiliar.
Today, a rock balances on top of your headstone. Beneath it lies a crushed daisy. Under the daisy are words in blue biro on a torn scrap.
I make Cakes too.
Life is a Dream.
Death is the reallity.
You wouldn’t have bargained on this downturn in circumstances: on the ghetto of Deadland, the utter voicelessness, and now, to add insult to injury, misspelled poetic offerings from God knows whom. You couldn’t have imagined it–not really, not you, not after Mademoiselle magazine, Cambridge camaraderie and vol-au-vents with the Eliots.
Let’s change the subject.
Down the church path and through the gate, this bit of the village greets modernity with unexpectedly wide, perpendicular streets. Lawnmowers drone and dog walkers genuflect, their hands ritually sheathed in plastic. Somewhere a mobile incants ‘The Birdie Song’. Wild roses blow. The foxgloves rise, their pink mouths electric with bees. In suburban-esque gardens, clumps of forget-me-nots insist as delicately, and as forgettably, as they do every year. (They are pale things compared with the wild alkanet that has colonised your grave.) Near the start of the footpath, ferns uncurl, tentative as new foetuses, while a man in long shorts and socks is, even here, on the blunt edge of a dark valley, washing and waxing his Ford.
If you watch carefully, you’ll see the scenery of this village shake when the wind blows too hard. The symmetry of the newer streets is a hard-won make-believe.
At the village’s heart, the soot-dark ginnels and archways still remember an emptiness–a wind-shot summit, the strange glow of moorland–while at the edge, the trees won’t grow upright. They know the truth, as do the drystone walls that tremble at the lure of gravity. Down the sheer wall of woodland, among the wych elm and oak, an odd shoe, a glinting wine bottle and a baby’s rusting pushchair are only the most recent sacrifices. The giddy swoop of the valley, the mesmerism of the river and the lush, leafy-green darkness can’t help but draw everything down, down, down.
It must take a collective act of the villagers’ will not to give in, not to be seduced, not to wobble too far in their stoical perch high on this hilltop.
This is not the place for you. You need sea level. You’re a long way from the Cape Cod trance of Nauset’s crashing rollers. Right now, there’s no imagining you–wishing you–up to your elbows in rock pools, your hands rising with sand dollars, starfish and fiddler crabs. At night, you won’t don your red bikini for a swim in the flashing phosphorescent surf. The sand dunes and their long grasses won’t be disturbed by your body holding fast to his.
To your right, your neighbour is Horace Draper, the dearly loved husband of Emily, who lived his span of eighty-five years. To your left is Francis Joseph Carr, who left this world in November 1960, just days before Kennedy was elected to office. As Francis breathed his last, you squinted at a flickering black-and-white set in a shop window on Regent’s Park Road, transfixed by the sight of the President-elect and Jackie standing on the brink of the decade outside their Hyannis Port home. You’d never say it, you’d only hope it, but weren’t you and Ted almost as winsome in literary London? Your first collection was just out with Heinemann. The BBC was paying Ted well. Your kitchen calendar at Chalcot Square was marked by plans for appleseed cake, banana loaf and home-made waffles. In little over a week, you’d record ‘Candles’ and ‘Leaving Early’ for the Poet’s Voice. You’d done the undo-able: you were the American sweater girl who’d become a British poet. England had let you moult your gung-ho, straight-A self.
On Regent’s Park Road, you strain to read Kennedy’s lips through the glass, to hear the New England burr of his words. Jackie smiles up at you, squinting into the Cape Cod sun. You can almost feel the sea-spangled light on your face. You can almost smell the salt marshes off the Nantucket Sound. JFK lifts Caroline into his arms. You jiggle Frieda in her pram and raise the hood against the drizzle. The parcel of pork loin is a reassuring weight in the shopping bag that dangles from your arm.
Did you know then? Did Ted? Already your marriage had failed.
* * * *
Alkanet grows on disturbed ground. It can sting like nettles. Though classified as a weed, it is not so coarse that it lacks a Latin designation. Pentaglottis– ‘five-tongued’ –sempervirens–’always alive’.
The only bouquet at your grave today is a spray of red-and-white carnations, but their blooms have withered in the bushy, two-foot-high shadow of the alkanet. Its tiny flowers have the dark plutonic brilliance of blue LED bulbs. Once upon a time, its huge taproot was cultivated by monks for cloth the colour of Christ’s wounds, and, earlier still, by Egyptian priestesses to henna their hair. Red is of course your signature colour, the trademark hue of your tulips and poppies; of the bleeding cheeks, sliced thumbs and pulpy hearts you could not resist.
(Sssh. Lie low. Don’t move. No rising up. The three Fates of Heptonstall have trained their eyes upon us.)
I don’t see it at first amid the stalks of alkanet: a neat willow basket propped on your grave and packed with solid earth. Soil and mulch from someone’s New England garden, or so says the smeared gift card.
I resolve not to look in the basket; not to intrude on your privacy and hers. Except I do. When the dark woollen backs of the Fates are turned, I hunker down and reach inside. And behold! It’s as if the Welcome Wagon ladies have been.
First, a few silver coins–for the ferryman naturally. Will you need them now? I wonder. You’re no longer that new soul waiting for the ferry, mistaking it for the 11 a.m. from Hyannis to Nantucket. I imagine you used to enjoy that journey simply for the to-and-fro of the ride itself. It would have offered you a rare release from purpose, from the need to get somewhere in life. Perhaps you like to ride the ferry, even now.
Next, a plastic ballpoint pen, red. Drawing pencils and a pencil sharpener.
A chunk of pink rock. No, pink glass. Sea glass, if I’m not mistaken. Worn smooth.
A string of beads, white against the dark earth.
A string of black beads looped around the basket’s handle.
A key ring with a pendant of tarnished silver. No key.
A three-inch female nude in red clay. She’s big-breasted, big-bottomed.
Two red gummy children, sticky with the warmth of June.
An overturned red wine glass. Because you and Ted never were the types to reach for a plastic planchette. You doubted that Parker Brothers could point the way to the spirit world.
My childhood Ouija Board sat on a basement shelf beneath the Monopoly and Scrabble. I still remember the injunctions the kids down the street breathed into my ear. If the planchette falls from the board, a spirit will get loose. If you try to burn the board, it will scream. Never ask it when you’re going to get rich or when you’re going to die. Never, never use the planchette when you’re alone.
I lift the glass from the basket. I dispense with formalities: the ring of paper letters, the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’, and a partner’s fingertips on the base of the glass. Speed is of the utmost, for the Fates are coming my way, bearing garden spades and plastic floral features. Perhaps they are the sisters of Horace Draper, aged eighty-five. I, on the other hand, am disturbing a grave. Or at least a basket.
I hold the rim of the glass to my ear, as if I were listening for our crashing Atlantic three thousand miles away.
At first I hear nothing but the buzzing of the tinnitus I’ve had since dinner at a noisy Carluccio’s the other week. The stalwart Fates trudge past, eyeballing me but saying nothing. Knitting needles and grey yarn poke from the pocket of the eldest. Overhead, swallows scissor the reams of sky, and something in the atmosphere opens.
Your voice comes,as crackly as an early BBC recording.
‘Love . . . life,’ you intone.
The first and last words of ‘Ariel’ zip and burn like supernovas through the stem of the glass.
What to say? ‘May I ask where you are?’
‘Oh . . . you know. On the river. The two of us.’
‘The river.’ So casual. So brave. I picture the smoking water of the Styx, the bitumen-light.
‘We’re gliding under an ornamental bridge with not a—’ I lose your voice for a moment. ‘We’ve commandeered a Swan Boat!’
I imagine oversized fibre-glass wings and a lurid plastic beak.Ted in a Swan Boat?
‘It’s been years,’ you continue. ‘Why, it’s practically the Boston Public Garden.’ If you try, you say, you can imagine your newly-wed apartment on Willow Street, as if it’s just a walk away. Your white-and-gold Samsonite luggage is piled high in the swan’s stern, and today you are wearing the eponymous Pink Wool Knitted Dress Ted tells us you were married in.
At my ear, the rim is as hot as an ancient fire cup. The base of the glass starts to vibrate against my palm. The strain of dimensions is too great. ‘And Ted?’ I call.
It’s as if you’re fiddling with an earpiece. ‘Could you repeat the question?’
‘Yes,’ you echo,‘Ted. He’s here too.’
‘Is he enjoying the . . . the outing?’ Somewhere to my left, the Fates are clattering away with their spade.
‘That’s—right,’ you say. ‘He’s . . .’
‘Could you—’ A hairline crack is zigzagging up the bowl of the glass. ‘Are you—’
‘—baiting a line.The fishing is good, we’re told.’
‘In the Styx?’
‘Hold on . . .The man is telling me . . .’
‘—we’re nearly there.’
Through the splintering glass, your voice rises like a girl’s and, somewhere up ahead, fish gleam and flash for you.
From ALL THE BELOVED GHOSTS. Used with permission of Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2017 by Alison MacLeod.