Also by Joan Aiken
and available from Bello
The Embroidered Sunset
The Butterfly Picnic
Voices in an Empty House
The Five-Minute Marriage
Jane Austen Novels
Emma Watson: The Watsons Completed
The Youngest Miss Ward
Paget Family Series
The Smile of the Stranger
The Weeping Ash
The Girl from Paris
THIS IS HOW it all came about. I will omit early struggles, a walk-on with a fringe group at the Edinburgh Festival, one song in a musical in Amsterdam, hind-legs of Puss at Nottingham, and a mime part in Papp’s Public Theatre, New York. Yet another non-speaking part, which I gladly accepted, was that of a ghost, in a BBC TV ghost story. I had to play a few notes on a ghostly harp. For this I was chosen — believe it or not — because I actually can play a few notes on the harp: for three happy years I formed part of an amateur music ensemble and alternated on harp and guitar, with occasional brief but exhilarating sessions on drums. One of the men in that group subsequently rose to higher spheres in Pyramid Television and had become a casting director; by lucky chance he remembered my harping expertise and fetched me in for the spook play. I had to sit in a dim glow at the foot of a flight of stairs, dressed in shimmery green, pluck gracefully at the strings of this enormous silver harp, and turn my neck languidly to and fro. The neck movement was supposed to be sinister, also blind; “Think of a maggot, darling,” Harald the director had instructed me. “A maggot or a blind hungry worm that scents food but can’t see it, a worm twisting its head like a radar screen to pick up tiny clues of odour on the air.” Ah, dear Harald Flanagan, that director, he was a broth of a boy for a mixed metaphor. So, blind maggot or radar scanner, I manipulated my head this way and that, after the manner of a tennis umpire, or an expectant daffodil. The ghost play was nothing, a winter trifle, that got deservedly panned and was forgotten in a week, buried out of sight in the vast necropolis of television failures; but all my industrious neck-undulation lodged in some casting-director’s memory, and all of a sudden, six months later, to my utter astonishment, I was summoned to audition for one of two plum roles in a thirteen-part serial. Nineteenth-century costume drama, masterpiece-theatre stuff. Rosy and Dodo, it was going to be called, tossing overboard the original book title, a place name that was imaginary, and not interesting anyway.
The part I tried out for was that of Rosy, the blonde minx who, by selfishness, snobbery and extravagance, utterly wrecks the life of her handsome, idealistic doctor husband. Oh, she’s a real pig that Rosy, a sweet, pretty, accomplished, soft-spoken, flint-hearted bitch of a girl. Her two primary characteristics, at first sight, are the long neck and a rose-petal complexion.
All the women of my family (that is my mother, and her four sisters, and me) have, or had, extra-long Russian necks and fair complexions. So there was the first hurdle passed. In point of fact, Rosy is supposed to be twenty, and I am thirty-four, so you would think this was an idiotic bit of casting; but I am always taken for ten years younger than my age, nobody seemed to worry at all about that particular discrepancy.
“She’ll have to get her teeth fixed and wear blue contact lenses,” growled the female tycoon on the casting committee, scanning me as if I were a half-decorated dining alcove. It’s a very queer, depriving sensation, that of being assessed, not as a person, but as a bit of property. At first it used to make me very dejected. I felt, as slaves must have felt, disidentified, depersonalized, wiped out. But nowadays I find the process quite liberating. After all, ho ho, inside this shell that they are busily creating, there I still am, Cat Conwil, fully aware of myself, them, and all else that’s going on: the Girl in the Iron Mask. When somebody draws an outline all around you, and gives the command, Don’t stir beyond that point! their outline defines you to yourself, in what may be a hitherto unsuspected way. Like being left alone in a locked room.
I didn’t object to the blue contact lenses, though it was a bore learning to slot them in; for a spell at the start of shooting I continually held up the action and had upwards of thirty light technicians, dolly-pushers, cameramen, actors, and make-up girls on their knees, combing the studio floor for a dropped lens, which mostly proved to have worked its way round to the back of my eyeball. By and by I grew nimbler at slipping lenses in and out with a touch of the tongue for lubrication. Having my teeth fixed might be considered a really positive benefit, paid for moreover by Pyramid TV in their lavish lordliness. Before treatment my two front incisors had bowed towards each other like those of a beaver; I didn’t dislike my own appearance, it made me look friendly and confiding, which can be an asset; but if you are an actress, closeness to the norm is likely to net you more parts, especially for commercials. One has to be realistic. Nobody is going to use beavers’ teeth to advertise Supadent.
Being physically remodelled for Rosy was an advantage, too, when it came to working myself into the role. My hair, naturally dead straight and apricot-jam colour, had to fade several shades paler; for hers, in the book, is described as being of infantine fairness, neither flaxen nor yellow. I was obliged, also, to gain a few pounds in weight, because her figure is described as nymph-like, which in nineteenth-century parlance meant curvy rather than skinny. So, by gradual degrees, I began to be enveloped by a wholly different personality from me, Cat; I tried to think about Rosy all the time, as much as I was able, her relations with her parents, brother, cousins and neighbours in the dull provincial town where she lived, and where her forebears had always lived, and where her father, a third-generation manufacturer, was an alderman, about to become mayor. (When I say that the town was dull, I mean, of course, dull to Rosy; she longed for wider spheres.) She had been to a school for young ladies and learned to play the piano quite surprisingly well, for she was clever at picking up other people’s tricks of technique, and the harp just a little — so my small accomplishment came in useful yet again; she had learned how to climb in and out of a carriage in a ladylike manner, and how to defer prettily in conversation to gentlemen and older people. She knew nothing else at all. Girls of that period and class didn’t even learn to cook or fill in a form, or change a light-bulb — any of the basics that kids now get in their first year at secondary school. All she had to think about was herself, and what impression she made on men; so she had become a total narcissist.
I became quite fascinated by turning myself into Rosy — she formed such a total contrast to the way life has obliged me to develop. Due to various circumstances, which I will enlarge on if necessary, I’ve had little education but needed to be independent and resourceful about practical matters. Since the age of sixteen I’ve earned my own living and contributed to the support of others as well. So it felt like wonderful luxury to receive a lavish salary for playing the part of a girl who never did anything more active at home than pull a bell-rope and tell the maid to bring some more buttered toast. And, in conversation, always took care to adapt her manner to that of the person she was addressing. Oh, yes, I can tell
you, it was a whole lot of fun becoming Rosy — like taking a warm bath, tossing in cupfuls of bubble essence, so that the froth stands up in peaks and scrunches around you when you lie down.
Mind you, I had to learn several accomplishments that Rosy had acquired and I lacked; horse-riding was one. Day after day I trudged off to a School of Equitation just beside the Park, and day after day hobbled home stiff and sore with legs that felt like sticks of rhubarb ready to snap; for, later on in the script, when she has corralled her handsome doctor, wilful selfish Rosy goes out riding with a military admirer, against her husband’s orders, takes a toss off her mettlesome grey, and so has a miscarriage.
Accordingly, I learned to ride, and side-saddle at that. Also I had to learn tatting, since that was what young ladies mostly did in those days, while they were sitting about at home waiting for Mr Right.
“Tatting?” said Masha, my mother. “You want to learn tatting? What in the world for? Yes, yes, of course I can teach you; it won’t take any time at all. Just look in the top drawer of the little sewing table, right at the back, you’ll find the tatting bobbin that your aunt Tasha gave me.”
The little rosewood sewing table had accompanied my mother everywhere, from flat to house, from rectory to vicarage, all her married life. Grandmother Conwil gave it to her as a wedding present. It used to fascinate me as a child because it looked exactly the same, back and front, but the drawers at the back were false ones. All through childhood my greatest pleasure was to rummage in those two shallow drawers, untidy them, tidy them up again, explore the contents of the round, tin button-box, with a picture of a Turkish lady that had once held Turkish Delight, open the little dark-blue leather wallet of embroidery tools, play with the scissors shaped like a bird, the bead-covered emery ball for de-rusting needles, and the tape-measure made like a silk strawberry containing tape on a spring that zipped back when you let go — until the day I pulled it too hard and it never went back again.
Perhaps the part played by this drawer in my early life was the cause of my subsequent obsessive passion for paperclips? All those small, shiny, efficient gadgets?
I found the tatting bobbin — an oval tortoiseshell tool about the length of my thumb — and, sure enough, Masha taught me how to do simple tatting in half an hour. She chuckled as she did so.
“How very odd that you should need it for your job — considering how set against any form of needlework you were as a child.”
Perfectly true. In those days I couldn’t wait to get out into some profession where I would be on equal terms with men. None of your tatting or fancy work for me. Perhaps it was the result of Papa being a clergyman: the combination of father and God made me naturally disposed to assert my rights.
(Oddly enough, since the day Masha taught me, I have become quite keen on tatting, and find it a first-rate accompaniment to feeling out a part, to any creative thought, or just for reducing tension. I must say the product is quite hard to dispose of: yards and yards of skimpy lace, the kind used at the beginning of this century for edging table-mats and nightdress collars. But sometimes one’s friends will accept it for trimming lingerie.)
Masha was a little pale and breathless by the end of the tatting lesson. She had been, at that time, in bed for five months of her terminal illness. And, of course, had been walking about with it, getting on with her life and duties, for god knows how long before that. I noticed her check her breathing once or twice and press a hand against her back.
“Are you in pain?” I asked with dread, for I knew she was approaching the point when pills were not going to be enough, when injections would have to be administered. How can one summon up the courage to give an injection to one’s own mother? Trained for two years as a nurse, I possessed the technical ability. It was courage I lacked.
But no, no, she said, she was not in pain, just the merest trifling rheumatic twinge.
Masha’s dogged lifelong heroism, her stoic disregard of pain, or adverse circumstances, or any inconvenience to herself, her total self-sacrifice and generosity to others, may be among the contributory causes which make me such a contemptible coward and hypochondriac. Just to imagine, to attempt to grasp what she went through during her illness is enough to make me break out in cold perspiration, turn dizzy, almost keel over. As I write I can feel my hip and spine begin to ache.
“Anyway,” she went on comfortably, “now you know how to tat. Such a useful accomplishment! I’m so pleased there’s still something left that I can teach you.”
And she chuckled again with satisfaction, with a kind of triumph. I, too, even amid my unhappiness and worry, felt a smug complacency that I had been able to give her this pleasure. How incredibly selfish, how egotistical we are when dealing with our parents. Why, why, did I ask her so little, ever, about herself, about how she felt, what she thought? On this occasion we discussed the part of Rosy, and Masha did enjoy that, she always liked to get her teeth into an abstract topic. She had been to Cambridge, but had to give up teaching during Papa’s change of life. The novel from which the TV serial had been taken was in her bookshelf, she said, and told me to get it out, a well-thumbed classic two-volume Everyman edition; hopefully she asked if I would not like to borrow it, longing to be allowed to do me that service as well. But I declined her offer since I had already bought a paperback copy for myself (brought out in anticipation of the TV publicity); shortly after that I made an opportunity to take my leave. They were drainingly exhausting, those visits: one had to be so cheerful, so careful, so carefree, so false; assuming a hope and confidence that were wholly without foundation.
Rosy, I’m sure, in such circumstances, would have made out far better than I ever could. Falsity wouldn’t have troubled her, not a whit; she never noticed the difference between falsity and reality. She would not have become tired and frantic; she could have stayed all day, smiling and serene, because it was the proper thing to do.
Now, long after, I wonder why, why in the world, during that period, did I never, never level with my mother? Why didn’t I say, Look, I know — you must know too — that you are dying. What do you think about this, what do you feel about it, do you want to discuss it, what do you have to say about it? We’re both intelligent, it’s important, we love each other, you are my mother, I’m your only daughter, why can’t we be honest with one another about this?
I get a hole in my heart, now, thinking back to those dissembling interviews. My only relief comes from the recurrent notion that perhaps it was Masha who created the climate for them and forced the pretence on us both. She was a strong individual; perhaps she knew what was best for her? Or did she think it best for me? Perhaps honesty is a luxury that one ceases to wish for during the approach to death?
“I must go,” I repeated, and she said wistfully, “Must you? Really? Can’t you stay just a little longer?”
She had never been a demonstrative parent after one had outgrown the small-child stage of falling and hurting oneself, and needing to be hugged to make the hurt better. I think she missed that stage. She said to me once, sadly, “Children grow up so fast. The time has flashed by before one realizes.” And in her last illness she liked to hold one’s hand, as one sat by the bed and chatted; from that clasp it was hard, often very hard, to disengage oneself.
“Tell me about Fitz,” she said now quickly. “You haven’t told me anything yet about Fitz. Is he enjoying Harvard still?”
Unfortunately his last letter had been read to her on my previous visit; Fitz is not a lavish correspondent, though his infrequent letters, when they do come, make marvellous reading. “I’m writing to you from a dungeon,” he wrote to Masha once, and she was delighted. I resolved to telephone him that night and urge him to write to her without delay. I knew it would fret her too much if he phoned her: the terrifying extravagance of a transatlantic call would quite paralyse her powers of verbal communication.
“Well, never mind,” she said. “Read m
e his last letter again. I shall enjoy that just as much as a new one.”
The deep and loving bond between Masha and Fitz made them seem almost of the same generation; their rapport, of love and intellect both, put them closer to each other than to me. I have never been jealous of this, how could I?
As a matter of fact, I have often felt fairly complacent about having brought them together.
Alas, I had left his previous letter back at my flat in Notting Hill, and so I said yet again that I must go, and managed to detach the hand she had been clasping.
“You had better keep the tatting hook,” she said. “They are probably hard to come by. And I doubt if I’ll be using it again. Last year I began to get a little arthritis in my right forearm; that was why I stopped doing it. But I don’t imagine you’ll do enough to give yourself arthritis.” And she chuckled again.
I said I would like to keep the hook very much. “How old were you when Aunt Tasha gave it to you?”
“Oh, twelve or thirteen. It was a Christmas stocking present.”
There were five of the Conwil sisters — Tasha, Dolly, Mig, Minka, and my mother. Tasha and Dolly, the two eldest, never married, but lived together. They were one quarter Russian, three quarters Welsh. Great granny Conwil’s maiden name had been Ousspensky. Masha had been the youngest and was the last to survive.
“You will come again soon — won’t you?” She had managed to reclaim my hand, clasping it tightly. “Tomorrow?”
“Well — we have a rehearsal at twelve. I’ll try. But this part really does take up a good deal of my time.”
“It’s absolutely lovely that you’ve got it,” she said with warmth and pride. “I’m so very, very glad about it.”
Indeed she was. I knew she’d be boasting with innocent vanity about it to the nurses. But, just the same, there was a note of wistfulness, of disappointment in her voice, that my time for her was now so limited. And I daresay I made the TV serial an excuse to come less often than I might have, why conceal the fact? Because, how many hours of each day can one spend sitting by somebody’s bed in despairing grief? The anguish begins to leave its mark and one’s work deteriorates.