This piece was submitted by Barbara Jenkins as part of the 2014 PEN World Voices Online Anthology.
Barbara Jenkins’s event: A Literary Safari
That day the breeze was blowing more strongly than usual, or perhaps it was blowing at its usual strength, but I had no reason to notice it before. The long, white curtains that hung from the top of the doorframes had shaken themselves loose of the ribbons that restrained them and were swelling with breeze in and out, lifting over and flapping with soft slaps against the chairs and tables in the gallery, filling the spaces of the wide-open doorways—doorways so wide, so high, that Uncle would have me, just three years old, sitting astride his shoulders, clinging hard to the reins of his hair, while he galloped me, wildly shrieking with fear and excitement, from bedroom to gallery to another bedroom to gallery to living room to kitchen. In and out the dusty bluebells, he would sing, dancing me from one room to the next, through the encircling gallery of my grandmother’s home that was my home too, with my mother and her brothers.
The curtain, full of wind, billowed over my bed that day, brushing a feathery tickle across my face, waking me earlier than usual. I opened my eyes and looked around for my mother but she was not in our bedroom. I did not call for her because, when I listened to the world I had just woken up to, I could hear her voice and my grandmother’s voice coming from the gallery, just outside our bedroom. There was something slow and serious about the voices, one after the other, which made my own voice stay quiet while pulling me towards theirs. I slid down off the big bed and stood behind one of the curtains. That hard, strong breeze bellied the curtain. It wrapped itself round me, hiding me in its long folds as I stood in the doorway, watching and listening. The thin, pale day drew only faint broken lines of light through the waving branches and leaves of the big chenette tree outside, but I could see the back of my grandmother’s dress with its printed yellow flowers on leafy green vines peeping through the woven cane of her rocking chair, her long grey plait swinging from side to side over the back of the chair as she rocked back and forth, back and forth. The rockers went squeak, bump, squeak, bump, against the hard mahogany floor with a rhythm so regular that, even if I closed my eyes, I could tell when the next squeak, the next bump, was coming. My mother was standing in front of the rocking chair, facing my grandmother and facing me too, but she couldn’t see me where I was hiding. She was wearing her white housedress with pink and blue flowers sprinkled all over it and big pockets and a big round collar edged with white lace.
Through the blurriness of the curtain, I could see her head bent down and I could see her arms only down to her elbows. I imagined her holding her hands together behind her back, her fingers twisting round and round the ring she wore on her right hand, the ring with the blue stone she said was her birthstone. She always did that ring twisting when her hands were behind her back. I wanted to go out to the gallery, to stand near my mother, but there was something strange about the way they held their bodies, apart and stiff, the way they spoke to each other, as if they were not the same mother, the same grandmother that I had left when I fell asleep the night before, and it held me back, made me silent and secretive. My grandmother was speaking. She spoke for a long time. Her voice was not loud but it came out solid and hard like a plank of wood – a plank of wood with knotholes and rough patches. I understood only some of what she said… not again… shame… make your own bed and lie in it.
I wondered why she was talking so seriously about making a bed. I knew my mother hadn’t made our bed yet—I had been asleep there until a little while before. Why should that make my grandmother so vexed as to quarrel with my mother? My mother spoke softly and only for a little time, not interrupting but taking her turn. I could hear none of her words. Her voice did not have its usual up and down curves. It was just flat and soft and down. She was not looking at my grandmother—she was looking down at her feet and that made her words fall to the floor. Was not making your bed and lying on it such a naughty thing to do? I felt a strong urge to go out to the gallery and stand with my mother and hold on to the tail of her housedress to show that I too was sorry about the not making of the bed, but, at the same time, I sensed that the talking was somehow about important big people business and I should not interrupt. I was afraid that if I went out there to them they would be angry with me and I would be scolded and sent off to Cooksy in the kitchen.
When I got tired of standing I sat on the floor, near to one of the giant hooks in the wall that held open the big glass-paned doors. I ran my hand along the cold, hard hook. I pushed my fingers alongside the head of the hook, into the round metal circle screwed into the door. I wanted to pull out the head of the hook and free the door. My grandmother, uncles and mother had all warned me, from the time I could crawl about, that I was not to unhook the doors or they would slam shut in the breeze, breaking the glass, sending splinters flying everywhere, especially into my eyes and I would go blind. I used to walk about the gallery with my eyes shut, stumbling into furniture, practising how I would get around if one day I disobeyed, the glass shattered and I went blind. I wanted to unhook the door, so that the door would slam shut, and then they would stop the talking, because I didn’t like how I felt when I heard my mother’s voice, so soft and having no tune in it. But I did not lift the hook out of the metal circle, even though I wanted to. Instead I stood up and paid attention to the talking again which had got so soft I couldn’t make out any words at all.
My mother looked up at my grandmother and said something that must have been a question because her voice rose up at the end. The rocking chair stopped. The soles of my grandmother’s slippers made a slap on the floor as she leaned forward and put her feet down. She shook her head from side to side. My mother looked down at her own feet again. She slowly turned away and walked towards our bedroom, but she didn’t see me because I was still wrapped in the curtain and standing very still and quiet. I saw her look at the bed, at where I usually slept. Maybe she was looking for me. Then she went and sat at the foot of the bed. She sat with her chin resting on her hand, her elbow propped on her knee. She looked down at her lap, glanced back at the bed, then turned around again. Maybe she thought I was at breakfast in the kitchen with Cooksy. Her back to me, she looked straight ahead, right into the mirror of the dressing table that she was facing. She could not have been really looking into the mirror or she would’ve seen me, the lumpy ghost in the curtain I saw reflected in the mirror’s wide silver face.
She stared and stared ahead and then she dropped her face into her hands. I could see her shoulders shaking and I could hear her going… huhhh… huhhhhn… huhhh… huhnnn, as if she was squeezing her voice inside, trying to hold it back, but some of it pushed its way out anyway. I felt an ache in my chest. I didn’t understand what was going on. I wanted to hug her and make it all right, but I didn’t know how to let her know that I was hiding in the curtain for she would realise I had been looking on and listening all along, and I thought she wouldn’t like that, so I just stayed quiet where I was.
After a long while, she leaned forward, pulled open a drawer, took out a handkerchief and blew her nose in it. She looked again into the drawer and started taking things out of it and throwing them over her shoulders on to the bed. In a great hurry, she pulled open all the drawers, one by one, and did the same thing, flinging everything on our bed behind her, not seeming to care where they landed. Sheer stockings and the grey elastic rings that held them up, her panties and brassieres and girdle, her yellow nightie and the white one, her flesh-coloured silky petticoats and half-slips flew out, undoing their soft, careful folds and piling up in an untidy heap. My clothes came out too – white vests and panties and socks, flowery seersucker pyjamas. When she was done with the drawers, she pushed them shut and sat a while doing nothing. Then, she stood and walked slowly to the wardrobe and, from it she lifted out clothes on hangers, looking at each item – the blue silk dress with smocking at the front that I loved to look at, trying to work out how the stitching was done; the green taffeta one that made wavy patterns of light and shade running up and down it when she walked in it, that made me think of dragonflies tipping their heads to ripple the mossy pond at the Botanic Gardens; her slippery blouse with long see-through sleeves, and the floppy polka-dot one with a floppy bow at the front; a grey pleated skirt and a stiff narrow black one with slits on the sides. Then she lifted out my dresses – the plaid dress with the wide red sash for going for walks, and the yellow organdie one for church. All of these she touched – a collar of one, a lacy edge of another, a sash, a bow, then placed them with slow care on the bed.
She looked at the bed, her eyes moving over the heaps and the piles of things there, and turning away abruptly, she walked through the door that connected our room to Uncle’s bedroom. I could hear her talking with Uncle and a little while after she came back with a big brown grip that she put on the bed. When she lifted some little gold catches, the grip popped open in two halves. One by one she folded all the clothes that were on the bed, put them into the grip, went out the room again and came back with a paper bag that had handles; she put that on the bed too. From her dressing-table top, she took her hairbrush and comb, the round box with pink face powder and the square one with white body powder and its fluffy puff that made you sneeze, and put them in the paper bag. The little tortoise-shell box with her jewellery went into her white handbag, which she then snapped shut. I hadn’t noticed when she put the handbag on the bed. She opened the handbag again and took out a small-change purse. She twisted open the top and looked inside, took a roll of paper money from the brassiere she was wearing and put it in the change purse, clicked it shut and put it in the handbag, closing that too. Then she opened it again and took out a tube of lipstick. She twisted the tube and ran the red tip of lipstick over her mouth without looking in the mirror as she usually did. She put back the lipstick and shut the handbag once more.
Digging into the brown paper bag, she pulled out the comb and dragged it through her hair. It met a tangle and she tugged at it until the tangle came out along with a few long strands which she pulled off the comb, rolled into a ball and dropped on the dressing table. She opened the handbag again, took out the tortoiseshell box, opened it and picked out a pair of gold earrings, the ones that hang down with an oval coin with a flat statue of a lady in a long dress and veil on it. I looked to see if she would take out and wear the gold bracelets that she always kept in that box, but she did not.
She put back the tortoiseshell box and closed the handbag, opened the wardrobe and pulled out a pair of white shoes – the ones with peep holes at the front where you could see her big toes. Next, she opened the grip and took out a pair of stockings and the elastic circles and closed the grip. She put on the stockings and the elastics, stood up, bent her head round to look at the back of her legs and put on the shoes. She opened the grip and put the slippers she had been wearing into the grip and closed it again. When she looked down at her housedress, she stopped for a bit, then she began to pull it off in a hurry, lifting it over her head. She opened the grip and took out the stiff narrow skirt and pulled it on. The zip wouldn’t go right up and she left it like that, halfway done, while she scrambled around in the grip and took out the girdle, stepped into in, wiggling and wiggling until she pulled it right up under the skirt. Then she bent her head, looked at the waist of the skirt and finished pulling up the zip. I could see the floppy polka-dot blouse with the floppy bow right on top the things in the grip. She just threw that blouse on. The floppy bow was not even; one tail hung lower than the other, but she didn’t seem to notice. She did not look at herself in the mirror, not even once.
My mother picked up the handbag and walked out the door, right past where I was hidden in the curtain, across the gallery. I could hear the heels of her shoes going toc, toc, toc down the long flight of concrete steps, the sound getting fainter and fainter until there was no more sound. I stayed shrouded in the caul of that curtain for a long, long time, looking through it at the brown grip and the paper bag and the thrown-off housedress curled up on the bed. I stayed there waiting, listening for the toc, toc, toc to come back.
“Curtains” is the opening story in Sic Transit Wagon and Other Stories (2013), which was published by Peepal Tree Press, Leeds, UK.