Caroline's Storybook

Images And Reflections

by Caroline Ashbee

Turning a corner in that garden of gravelled paths, no longer raked, with patchy green eruptions here and there of moss, and lined with repeating, receding bushes of boxwood, once, long ago, cut into pyramids with lapidary precision, now somewhat shaggy and unkempt, I could see in the distance the other paths intersecting the one I was following, and at the nearest intersection of the paths there was a fountain as there was at each of them: this one was built of white marble, with two faint jets playing above figures too far away for me to make out any details about them. The fountains at the crossings of the paths were all different so I went to look at this one. The wind was cold, damp, carrying the dank smell of rain-soaked fallen leaves, flapping my skirt and raincoat against my leg as I walked. The clouds were grey; it was dull; and I was bored, as bored walking outside as I had been indoors in the dullest library in the world, filled, as if by the yard, with forgotten nineteenth century sermons. The fountain was curious: there were two marble statues, rather more than life size, of boys, Castor and Polydeuces perhaps, pissing, pissing into the air, and the jets were directed so that the stream from the phallos of each statue fell into the mouth of the other.

If it was meant to be a joke I did not find it funny. Men make such a fuss about standing up to piss. I find the combination of sheepish pride and schoolboy hilarity thoroughly tiresome ...

One of the statues was damaged: its right arm had been broken off. I thought of the story Marianne had told me about her great-great-grandfather, a famous sportsman of the county: Taking, naturally enough, no interest in his duty as squire of bestowing of the living of the parish to the new parson, he had decided, on a whim, to inspect the new incumbent chosen by his wife, a lady of puritanical disposition, bound to him by the indissoluble bonds of dynastic property-broking. Sitting swilling port and then brandy with his cronies after dinner he discovered in short order that the new parson did not keep a horse, did not shoot, and did not fish. The conversation therefore lapsed, and the parson, thinking to break the silence, complimented his host upon the painting, a landscape with nude figure, by Giorgione, hanging above the mantelpiece. His host stood up and staggered to the painting:

'By God, he's right: Georgy-own. Knows more about me pictures than I do meself'

The parson, heartened, then remarked that the aristocracy were the trustees of the nation's treasures. This infuriated his host:

'That damned painting's mine: it's none of the nation's business what I choose to do with it. I'll do what I like with it. This is what I like ...' and he took out his pocket knife and slashed the canvas diagonally across.

The others burst out laughing. The parson, appalled, stood, indecisive, sought for words that did not come, and turned and left the room. Afterwards, whenever the black dog was on him Marianne's forefather destroyed pictures, and towards the end of his life, when there were no notable paintings left, he would take a stonemason's hammer with him when he went out walking, and smash the statuary in the garden. Perhaps it was he who had smashed the arm of the statue.

Of course missing limbs had more significance for me than they did, perhaps, for other people. Usually I thought of other things, but what I was looking at made me conscious once again of my own missing leg and the crutches. I was made aware of the stump quaking slightly inside my skirt as my foot touched the ground, no matter how carefully I placed it, as I stepped and swung, stepped and swung, along the path. In my mind the sun was shining, the statue was undamaged and I was walking, heedlessly, along the path, the natural way, not any particular way, just thoughtlessly walking.

Afterwards I went inside. A fire had been lit in the small saloon. I rang for tea. The housekeeper brought it. By that time the staff had dwindled to four: one cook, the housekeeper, a chauffeur and general man-servant, and a boy. All that was left now of the old estate was the decaying house and outside, the formal garden, weeds breaking through the gravel, the hedges untrimmed, the fountains, mostly stagnant greenish pools, and Castor and Polydeuces.

After one had admired the crumbling flamboyance of the baroque exterior, and despised the yellowing nineteenth century French paintings - someone, probably the man who had destroyed the others, had been infatuated with the paintings of Bouguereau, who else? - there was nothing else to do except wait for Marianne to return ...

' ... and now I am back in England for the first time since I left college. I'd like to pick up my old life. Would you come and visit me? Stay for a few days, as long as you like, I can easily put you up.' Fifteen years on and exactly the same tone, and of course I came, as I always did, not exactly willingly nor yet unwillingly.

The housekeeper greeted me. She said she remembered me from the old days, and gave me the inevitable letter:

' ... something's come up ...' of course it has, ' ... got to be away for a while ...' of course you have, ' . . . very sorry ...' Hm, ' ... back soon ...', well, we'll see.

'Olivia is devoted to Marianne.' they said; they did; they all said it. I liked Marianne, I admired her in a way, but devotion? No. I knew Marianne too well to be devoted to her.

The fire burned down and I rang. The door behind me opened and the man-servant came in with wood;

'Oh, Olivia ... You came ...' spoken in a monotone, and not by the man-servant. I looked round and stood up.

'Didn't they tell you?'

'Yes.'

'Well then. It's not a surprise is it?' It didn't seem as if it had been fifteen years.

'No I didn't mean it was a surprise ... You came. That's all I meant.' She walked towards me. 'You're different . . .'

'Of course I am. So are you. It's been fifteen years.' We kissed and knew at once that something hadn't changed.

It was strange going in my night clothes openly down the corridors to the state bedroom. I didn't knock. I went inside. The fire had burned down to dull crimson embers and the canopy and curtains of the great bed were just visible in silhouette. We had shared the bed once before in all openness. When we were students I had stayed with Marianne and had asked to see round the house. It wasn't altogether good form to do that. After all, we all had historic houses in the country, of course we did - I didn't; Marianne hadn't told her parents that I was the daughter of a doctor - and who wants to act like a day-tripper in someone else's house? She showed me the state bedroom, and I said that I thought it must be wonderful to sleep in such a room. She didn't tell me until the evening that she had arranged with the servants to open the room and that we would sleep together in the enormous state bed. It had been like camping in a silken damask tent; and we did confirm what I had suspected, that we shared certain preferences.

I crept to the bed whispering 'Marianne, Marianne, I'm here.' The curtain parted and Marianne said 'I knew you'd come, you wanton.' Laying the crutches down I slipped inside. We arranged the sheets and the pillows as we had done so often all those years ago, and lay down on our sides head to foot as we composed ourselves, without preliminaries, for the partie.

Despite the need for a certain adjustment it was as if we had practiced together daily: the head of each came simultaneously to repose on the other's thigh and the tongue of each parted the other's other lips. The hands of each moved over the other's body, the hand of each following the hand of the other. The game we played was reflection: one's tongue copied the movement of the other's until there was no other, just one's own tongue playing between one's other lips pursuing bliss, Castor and Polydeuces becoming one.

And so it is that Olivia is devoted through Marianne to Olivia, and Marianne is devoted through Olivia to Marianne, and each is devoted to the other.


Thursday 6th July 1995
© Caroline Ashbee 1992-1995