On the radio Schubert. Composer of the Week R3. Playing: String Quartet in G major, D 887 from the last year of his life.
Song “None but the lonely heart” – from a poem by Goethe.
Oh God, the sheer delight of drinking good coffee on the garden steps. The outline of hills visible through bare trees of a late spring. A book of poetry. London seems as remote to me now as the Alexandria of C.P. Cavafy. And it is the body that remembers.
Another poem by C.P. Cavafy:
The Afternoon Sun
This room, how well I know it.
Now they’re renting it and the one next door
as commercial space. The whole house is now
offices for brokers, salesmen, entire firms.
Ah, this room, how familiar it is!
Here, near the door, stood the sofa,
a Turkish carpet just before it;
nearby was a shelf with two yellow vases;
on the right – no, facing it – was an armoire with a mirror.
The desk where he wrote stood in the middle,
along with three large, wicker chairs.
Beside the window lay the bed
where we made love so many times.
All of these poor old furnishings must still exist
Beside the window lay the bed;
the afternoon sunlight reached only half way across it …
That afternoon, at four o’clock, we parted,
just for a week … alas,
that week became forever.
Remember, Body …
Penguin Little Black Classics No.43
It is the strangest feeling to wander as a ghost in your own life. That afternoon as I walked past 208 I saw the movers were in. Flotsam and jetsam flowed into the back of a large van. The facade of the house was painted a tasteful magnolia and what had been a ramshackle collection of squatted flats was now the desirable residence, entire, for millionaires. I remember the look of sheer horror on my mother’s face at the peeling grey paint, dripping overflow with moss and ferns flourishing in cracks. I used to live here once, could I ….?
“Go on then Love, there’s nobody in.”
But he was wrong. Each floor was thronged and, turning a corner on the stairs, I half expected to walk into myself. Strange to be a ghost in your own life. Muffled by expensive wool carpets, designer wallpaper the house breathed money and comfort and my ghosts stirred uneasily, unused to such luxury.
We lived in the basement and first floor. I was alone that summer, Fia had gone back to Sweden, by train and boat as we did in those days. I was having cold baths every day, as we had yet to organise a heating system, and subsisting on porridge and spaghetti with butter. I positively looked forward to that spaghetti every evening; tossed in unsalted butter with a smidgen of salt crushed on top and flavoured with the sauce of hunger.
When I met Didier I was sitting on the back doorstep, soaking up the afternoon sun and admiring the weeds in the huge and overgrown garden. He introduced himself as our neighbour, obviously French but sounding as if he had been to an English public school. I was invited to visit that evening.
Their flat was directly above ours – bare floorboards with pale green walls. The dark London night with fronds of chestnut trees pressing against the windows created a brightly lit aquarium. Edith Piaf on the record player, P’tcaf (little black coffee) the black lab puppy clattered happily about. Newspaper was down. Didier appeared with coffee and Paul and Jeff (Jean Francois) came in to introduce themselves. It was a moment of mutual enchantment. Paul, a figure from the Commedia dell’Arte, all arms, legs and exaggerated poses, exuding a joyous innocence; Jeff, a small African carving, laughing inwardly, kissing my hand, the epitome of sardonic French charm.
I was asked to stay to dinner.
I have mown paths around the apple trees and narcissi.
Listening to Rameau Les Indes Galantes.
And whilst reading Michael Longley this thought suddenly came into my head: “What clothes we used to wear!”. No idea why.
But what clothes we used to wear!
A tartan nightshirt over leggings and pixie boots.
Layers of junk shop skirts
Junk shop earrings
A pair of striped metallic silver leggings so that I looked like a young tough in a Renaissance painting
Tiny, knitted mini-skirts worn, luckily, with thick tights and flat shoes
A peculiar mustard velour miniskirt that looked like it was made from carpet
Zouaves – does anyone even remember what those are?
A gigantic tank top that must have been made for the fat man at the circus from Flip or was it Mr Howie?
A HUGE blue mohair tam-o-shanter – in payment for the first painting I ever sold
The pièce de résistance – the bottom half of some prison pyjamas, grey-and-white striped tucked into the aforementioned pixie boots under a moth-eaten old fur coat, with diamante clips in my hair – one half of my head shaved. I remember sashaying down some steps at a Hayward opening and seeing Waldemar Januszczak at the bottom slack-jawed in amazement, as well he might. I thought I was the bees knees. I’m not sure what he was thinking, nothing remotely similar I’m sure. Strangely though, I was not a confident young person but I did have a lot of bravado.
It is a beautiful sunny morning.
I think I will mow the grass.
It’s funny what comes into your head when reading poetry. After reading Jo Shapcott’s Of Mutability I had the most vivid memory of a bedroom ceiling. It was the ceiling of the first flat I owned, in Camberwell, essentially the kitchen and scullery of an 18th century rectory. And then the photograph of the flat fell out of The Whitsun Weddings. Tiny, and when I saw it, in the hands of the banks and looking very sad. The fireplaces had all been boarded up by the previous landlord and nasty, smelly brown carpet throughout. The kitchen was a void without even a sink.
I have loved all the places I have lived for various reasons. At first, I loved this flat because of the magnolia tree in the garden, old and huge with bowl-like flowers. The garden had been carved up as so often in London conversions and I had the patch with the ancient magnolia, next door had an even more ancient mulberry. The fabric of the house went back to medieval times with wattle and daub foundations and Walter, thrillingly, said he could “feel something” …. I never did.
I bought it by sheer fluke. I had just come back from Africa and was waiting for a bus – buying anything, much less a flat, was far from my mind. I had spent all my money on safari – my Dad had died and left me a tiny amount and I blew it all on the trip. I was living in a very expensive rented flat and wondered as I mooched around the estate agent’s window – would that damn 36 ever arrive? – if buying would be as expensive as renting? With nothing to lose I went inside and started to chat to the woman at the desk. A dapper man breezed in and instantly said – “Enid, she looks like an Old Rectory Type”. Was this a good thing? I wondered, also to be classified so instantly was rather insulting. Anyway to cut a long story short it turns out I am an Old Rectory Type because the moment I walked in I knew I would buy it if only for the big old magnolia in the tiny garden.
The flat itself was minute – a sitting room, bedroom, kitchen and bathroom. Very dark, very tatty but with the tree in the garden, its branches tapping at the window.
Anyway weeks of hard work paid off. Ripping off the hardboard covering the fireplaces revealed beautiful Victorian fireplaces with their original tiles. I found an old German sink with brass taps in a reclamation yard and suddenly had a functioning kitchen but with no cooker for weeks until I managed to save for one. I existed on sandwiches in the interim.
The most exciting moment was walking in after the carpet had been ripped up and the floorboards sanded. Floorboards that had not seen the light of day for decades suddenly had a honey slick, so glowing and pristine so that I could hardly bear to walk on them. And after that the tiny flat became home. I found a wardrobe in a junk shop that just fitted its alcove, some ancient linen curtains looked just at home and I painted the bedroom ceiling cerulean blue and hung a kitsch old lantern. I woke up to a warm blue glow every morning. Most of the end wall of the bedroom was taken up by ancient rattling sash windows – so cold in the winter with an icy draught whistling round my head.
The sitting room was the old scullery with a stone slab where the old washing copper would once have stood. I painted one wall a pale, jonquil yellow and another a dark, shiny aubergine. Another rattly sash window and a door into the garden. I found it very easy to be happy in that tiny flat. Dark summer London evenings with the Proms on the radio and my legs dangling over the side of the minute two-seater sofa. It is hard to describe that solitary happiness, alone in the warm summer night with the faint sound of sirens carrying on the warm air, it was like living in a music box.
Over the winter the rain had pounded the earth into a hard crust and I was rooting about to break it up and allow the earth to breathe.
The scent of the narcissus wafted across bringing with it a sudden shock of memory. Foggy at first until I remembered the flower-shop in Hong Kong. I was seven and we were to be flower-girls for my adored Auntie Marie. She was half French and half Chinese and to me the most wonderful creature in my tiny universe. Marie was a model and was going to marry my Uncle Joe – the most glamorous couple to ever tread the earth – and being a flower-girl was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me.
We had walked from home to the flower shop to choose flowers for the wedding. It was hot and stuffy and crowded on the pavement outside. As we stepped out of the heat and dust it felt like plunging with a sharp smack into a cool tank of water, the scent, fresh and green and heady and I drowned happily, my whole body engulfed. We wore pale yellow dresses for the wedding and carried baskets of pale yellow flowers – perhaps they were a type of narcissi. She was the most beautiful bride in her simple pale lace dress.
Marie and Joe went to live in California, divorced and remarried, both happily. She grew rather fat, drank a bit and took to gambling. We lost touch and she died young. I didn’t cry when she died, at the time it had felt almost like the death of a stranger. So why am I crying now as I did not then; driving through the Irish countryside in this cold spring, years and years later, far, far away from that childhood in Hong Kong, with the ghostly scent of narcissus reminding me of the long-lost girl in her pale dress.