Reflected Universe

The second of two passages from Next Year In Jerusalem

 

Frustratingly, my eagerness for adventure was no measure of my ability to keep pace with the high spirits of the rest. Dr. Jennings had forbidden me to dance. At Christmas, I danced solo in the pantomime we put on for our patrons and almsgivers and a lady from the audience was so taken with my performance she offered to arrange proper tuition. Nadia, her name was, a gamin creature in red fox fur up to her ears, a real ballerina, Reverend Mother had emphasised, and a member of the Rambert company. “Such an honour, Angel. You are blessed.”

It was a fairytale come true. Little had I thought to become what I most longed to be! Undaunted by the discipline, I practised my steps morning and night. Madame Minoret at the ballet school was amazed by my progress. A natural, she had confirmed to Nadia, an empathetic dancer, whatever that meant. And Nadia had twinkled. “We shall see what we shall see,” she said.

But Dr. Jennings had come along and put a cold stopper upon my ribs and squinted down his aquiline nose and warned that the dancing must cease. All strenuous activity was to be avoided.

“A slight heart murmur,” he confided to Sister Agnes, relaxing his stethoscope. “Nothing to be unduly concerned about at this stage. However, we had better play safe. Eh, young lady?”

During the night, I went down with a fever. Dr. Jennings was summoned and diagnosed a severe attack of ‘flu. Alarm grew when I failed to respond to treatment. For two days and nights my condition did not abate and even in delirium my toes formed points under the covers. On the third day, the crisis passed. I surfaced, clearer-eyed, to a new world of textures, tastes and sounds. The acuity of my perception was startling. It was as though I had been recast in another mould. The calm relationship of objects, after the storm which had imparted a sinister meaning to them, moved within me a remote happiness. I found myself in the sick bay, in a large bed high off the disinfected linoleum, with Felicity Rag-Doll ailing beside me and a painted Tau Cross on one wall and the Sacred Heart of Jesus on another, inflamed and bleeding, and the Michelangelo Pietà on a third. Down the corridor, Mildred Semple was practising her piano pieces. I sat up and flung the blankets aside. But the second the floor touched cold to my foot, I remembered. How I pined for my lost freedom! It was torture not to be able to take flight and dance, like being a bird and having your wings clipped.

Life was never the same again. All I did involved undue effort. I tried not to give in but tired quickly. What I hated most of all was being left behind like the lame boy in The Pied Piper of Hamelin, forever shut out of the enchanted kingdom inside the mountain because he couldn’t keep pace.

In the garden, I looked on dispirited, while the hole dilated at my feet and my companions alighted on the rewards of their industry. Several blue glass beads were found, an old clay pipe, its bowl still intact, a tortoiseshell comb and a bun penny. As the afternoon wore on, we lost all track of time and place until we heard Sister Agnes calling us across the snow.

Thomas hitched his spectacles up to the bridge of his nose with his forefinger and consulted the position of the sun. “Right men! Pocket the booty! It’s a long trek back to base. Look lively, Novak, or you’ll be spending the night in an eighteen foot drift. Wolf-fodder, that’s what you’ll be!”

We followed him, our Wellington boots cutting a swathe through the smudged lawn. Already the snow on the terrace had melted. A thrush sang in the apple tree stippled with green. The conservatory threw back a pale sky splashed with flame. It was warm. The air smelled of spring and of picnics postponed, of an outing to the sea if we were lucky. Tomorrow all trace of snow would be gone.

It was as we were stamping our boots, about to file in, that a resounding thud drew our attention. A young blackbird had collided with the window and lay, a tumbled heap of feathers, on the path. I darted to his rescue, but it was too late! He fixed me meekly with his beady eye and lapsed, quivering, into stillness. I stretched out a finger and stroked his soft wings. He was as warm as my own flesh and blood, poor scrap, so deceived by the reflected universe. I couldn’t take it in. I fell on my knees and moaned and rocked to and fro and refused to be comforted. How could I bear such passive obedience to order?

That night, I had a nightmare about the hole in the garden and how it could be made good before Simms found out. I awoke, sobbing, to the recollection of yesterday and that precocious silence about which I could never speak.

 

Image courtesy of Carl Bovis

 

 

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A Thief In The Night

The first of two passages from Next Year In Jerusalem

 

 

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

 

Snow fell unexpectedly in my hopeful seventh spring. It made shadows of the bare boughs. It sent shivers down the spindly spine of young birch. It found out the eroded pointing in the brickwork. With a gentle insistence it gathered along the window-ledges, made portholes of the panes and silenced the astonished birds. Flake by flake, it settled upon the lawns Simms had already mown twice that season, and obliterated the paths as though it meant business. Soon it had created a ghostly monochrome world. A child’s world.

No one guessed it was coming. The weather forecast had been promising. It came without warning, this taste of winter in May; a thief in the night.

Mrs Simms, housekeeper at St. Mary’s declared: “Well, well, I never! That’s put paid to the picnic, then. Nipped our plans right in the bud, that has, dear.” She liked things to be orderly, predictable.

“Never mind, I suspect the children won’t be too disappointed,” Sister Joseph said in a pleasant rallying tone. “They’ll be just as happy making snowmen as picking cowslips. You can’t order the weather, I’m afraid.”

She was right. We whooped with delight and scrambled on to the sills to watch the sky come tumbling down to earth at last. We had longed for snow and felt cheated. Unlike its predecessor, the winter had been a sequence of lethargic days, of damp pavements and mild winds that never got off the ground. There was no cutting edge to it. No blade-bright December or January to sting colour into your cheeks and pinch your toes. Spring came unheralded, robbed of its magic. Even the snowdrops flowered unremarked.

But the advent of snow put a new complexion on things. It lent poignancy to the frail evidence of rebirth.

Throughout lunch that day, which included mortifying wads of bread-and-butter pudding I shall never forget, we agitated to be let loose on the sugar-frosted landscape and, as soon as it was over, crowded the exit noisily. We rolled in the snow, scooped it up and stuffed it by the fistful into our mouths, tobogganed in the dell where the oaks were strung with rubber tyres. Long earthen scars appeared upon its slopes. The air was thick with shrieks of glee and icy missiles exploding on ducked backs. Some built a fortress in the shrubbery, irrigating its mote with a length of hose burgled from Simms’ shed, until the brindled snow had turned to slush, the towers sank in ruins and the ramparts were no more.

“I know,” cried someone, “let’s dig for buried treasure!”

And as enthusiasm quickened among us, we fell to seeking our fortune in the swede patch Simms had painstakingly prepared for the new crop. The primary colours of our spades struck a contrast with the snow and with the cheerless garments thrust upon us in those years of rationing after another fullscale war. The world had not entirely awakened to its own survival.

Fortunately, Simms had gone into town on an errand for Matron, and was not around to see his beloved domain turned inside out, soil and snow and clods of clay flying from the trench. The going was tough. The purposeful were soon singled out from those in search of aimless distraction.

“The ground is hard,” complained the whey-faced Polish boy Matron fed with iron pills and spoons of loathsome fish-oil he spat out at her. “I try somewhere else.”
A groan went up from the rest of us. We knew him of old.

“Novak’s chickened out before we’ve started,” sniffed Thomas in disgust, a good-natured elderly boy of eleven who took command of all our enterprises.

“It’s all right for you, my spade’s too blunt,” the quarrelsome Lucy told him.

“Mine’s broken,” wailed little Humphrey, and the corners of his mouth curved down and the beads of moisture in the corners of his eyes filled out.

“Have mine, then,” I said. I was dizzy and my chest felt sore.

“You’re my best friend,” he beamed up at me. “You can have my pudding tomorrow. Unless it’s treacle tart!”

"Old Beaky says she's got a dicky ticker," Thomas informed them, mopping his overheated brow upon his sleeve. "Reckon he could be right. She's always out of breath."

 

 

 

Next Year In Jerusalem was originally published by Robert Hale Limited (now The Crowood Press) in 1980

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A Stepping Stone

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For Easter, a short extract from my first litfic novel, published in 1980, entitled NEXT YEAR IN JERUSALEM. (Re-issue  2016.)

 

After a while, I emerged from that winter solstice of the spirit, entombed by dark days, as out of a long, long dream. It was far worse than anything yet endured. I had not known what it would cost to see things for what they were worth. I only wanted to sleep, forget. The very daylight impinging on the room each morning brought a flood of dread. Another day. Another battle for survival. Nothing could be taken for granted. The fastening of buttons, the shaking of quilts, loomed insurmountably ahead, an art to be learnt all over again. I was bound by a torpor wound round and round like bandages from which I had neither the strength nor the will to break free. “You must try to pull yourself together,” Jude insisted. “Get out more.”

Then one morning, I woke to the epiphany of sunrise, watched its arc widen over the rim of the howe and turn the loch to liquid fire. As it was slowly delivered of the earth, I felt I was being reborn. The stone was rolling away. The sun was round and pure as optimism. Independent. Made whole. The tears long imprisoned behind my eyes fell copiously. This was how Lazarus must have felt when he came back to the land of the living.

It was all over then, death, already behind me. And what was it but a nightmare banished at dawn? Or perhaps the draught moaning through a warped lintel against which you might turn up your collar. It wasn’t an event, yet you saw its effects, felt them. Death was a vicarious thing, a term used when others could no longer be seen.  

 

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Wishing you a Joyful Easter Season

 

Copyright

© Copyright Rosy Cole 1980, 2008, 2015

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Latest Comments

Stephen Evans We Don't Say Goodbye
15 June 2018
Sound advice Ken.
Ken Hartke We Don't Say Goodbye
13 June 2018
I may have posted this before -- I sometimes need to revisit it. I occasionally need to give myself ...
Katherine Gregor Rise
12 June 2018
I like it!
Katherine Gregor R. R. R.
12 June 2018
I hope you're right. Thank you for your comment.
Rosy Cole R. R. R.
12 June 2018
The real strength you gained from this, I believe, is the interior knowledge, not necessarily recogn...

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