William Orpen Self-portrait 1917
Following Tuesday's post, an excerpt from my latest (unedited and unpublished) Marion Grace novel, THE GODMOTHER, the story of a dysfunctional family floundering in the aftermath of two World Wars in pre-Millennium Britain.
At first, she’d disliked him, and then learnt to trust him, for he didn’t lack charm. She did not doubt that he was a worthy man, a brave man, who had suffered at the hands of the German Kaiser and was drawn from a nobler class where books were revered for their wisdom rather than their cubic capacity as doorstops and stepladders. He’d given her a taste for lore and legend and had formed a significant part of her education. She’d left school at fourteen and gone straight into Carrick’s on Marrowbone Lane in the city, thinking herself lucky to be selling refined goods like mercerised cotton and liberty bodices and ecru linen trimmed with Limerick lace.
Saul was fine unfolding his armoury of tales, but when the ‘black dog’ stalked, he looked weird and wild, stormed by delusions.
The worst period was after the triplets were born and Bridie was stricken with puerperal fever. The crisis passed, but she was slow to recover. All the strength had been sucked from her by the next generation, five children in fifteen months.
That was when Saul had towered over Sibyl’s camp bed, spreading himself against the moonbleached curtains and appealing to her in a hissed and driven conspiracy of affection, so that Sibyl froze and wrenched her being away from him with a will as iron as the disapproving bed-frame. Young as she was, she vaguely knew she was his quarry, knew with a feral intuition that bypassed reason or experience, by his daytime fixation upon her. He was like his namesake, the Old Testament king when melancholia felled him, but Sibyl had no music, no lute or harp to beguile him back to the crystal climes of the living. He was in the stinking, sulphurous trenches of Passchendaele with his compatriots blasted to haemhorraging smithereens, no way out, no way back to paradise, the only possible glimmer of Eden in the peachy flesh of Eve.
It had happened a number of times. She couldn’t remember how many. Those incidents were mercifully obscure and that was how she had wanted to keep them. It had given her the steel to withstand the whole human race and know that she was right to keep herself to herself. She had no time for all this counselling, dragging up the past. Modern society had become obsessed with its own navel. It didn’t do any good. Neither the likes of Saul coming back from the Great War, nor the men who had fought in World War II, had the benefits of mental pampering. You had to get on with life. No one could return what had been pillaged, but there would be restitution on Judgment Day, she was convinced.
That whole episode left Sibyl in a stew of confusion. At ten years old, she had tasted power and shame and she couldn’t spit it out. She was invaded, unclean. Mingled with the tarry anger of hatred was a piquant knot of something purporting to be love and pity. It was as if a cloaked figure moved in the shadows of her psyche. It made her think of a monk in a cowl who was pious and evil at once, heart-stoppingly beyond the pale of salvation because he had sinned in the face of God.
No way could she disclose this to Bridie: she didn’t have the words, or the nerve, it was too foul a deed. Bridie had no patience with tales and tittle-tattle at the best of times. Sibyl wouldn’t be believed. She’d get a sound thrashing, twenty Hail Marys and be forced to wash out her mouth with carbolic soap. It would bring forth accusations of depravity and wilful defiance in fostering the myth of an evil stepfather. In the end, you had to do the bidding of your elders, especially fathers. You might create a shindig, but you had to live with the things they did and said.
Since the age of three, she had distrusted men and when she was older, made sure she married one who could be relied upon to obey her. And Edwin did have a certain dignity, a certain cachet in esoteric circles. This plainly indicated that Sibyl was a cut above her family and had grasped truths outside the franchise of ordinary mortals, which appeased her bruising quest for status.
Unperceived by her mother, Sibyl took to stealing. She quickly discovered a talent for pocketing candy under her apron when she ran errands to Derry Deal’s corner shop. Purchases from the top shelf entailing the use of a ladder gave her ample opportunity to practise her art. She shrewdly deduced that any child of Bridie Collins-as-was, a devout Catholic girl, bonny and brisk and God-fearing, would be trusted. Derry didn’t quibble about letting Bridie run up a slate. Later, she stole underwear and articles of feminine hygiene from Carrick’s, and lisle stockings (though she hankered for silk) explaining as bold as brass to her mother that staff were given 'perks' and ‘seconds’ for nothing. Her thieving was stealthy, an item at a time, and went undiscovered, which was only right. Ideas of property and the boundaries of the ego were heavily smudged.
Sibyl wanted herself back. She wanted most what she could not have. Forbidden things, out of reach things. Being given did not hit the mark and nothing quenched the viridescent fires of coveting...
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World Vision, International Prison Outreach, Salvation Army, Emmaus Project, Poor Clares, DogsTrust, BUAV (against animal testing) WWT (Wildfowl &...