©Helen Townsend 2013
“Uncle Barry’s in love with Daphne,” Jennifer whispered. We weren’t supposed to talk after Mum had kissed us goodnight and put us to bed, but I always slid across into Jennifer’s bed so she could tell me things. I liked being in her bed. I would have liked to sleep there, snuggled into her shape, right next to her where I could touch her curly hair, but she only allowed me there on sufferance, just a little while each night.
“What’s “in love” mean?”
“It doesn’t matter. “You don’t need to know because it’ll never last,” she said. Even in the dark, I knew when Jennifer rolled her eyes. She rolled her eyes a lot. Sometimes she sighed too.
“What won’t last?”
“Being in love.” She wouldn’t tell me any more. “Go back to your own bed.”
So I went back to my own bed and got my china dog and put him right down the bottom of the bed so his ears wouldn’t stick into me. I put my paintbox under my pillow and cuddled my dolly who was called Patience inside my pajama top. Jennifer had a doll called Prudence, but she didn’t take her to bed.
“In love, in mud, inside, outside, in bed, in and out…”
“Shut up,” said Jennifer. “Or Mum will come in.”
Next time I heard about Uncle Barry and Daphne I was sitting under the kitchen table which was covered by an old seersucker table cloth that nearly reached the ground. There was a square of light that came in from the window over the sink. You could see through the tablecloth because it was so old and thin. But it still felt like a secret place. Mum and Nanna were having a cuppa, which they did every Thursday afternoon while Mum shelled the peas, and I often sat there because I liked to look at Nanna’s shoes, which were burgundy suede with a little silver buckle. They were much more glamorous than Mum’s lace up shoes.
“Is Barry still taking that Daphne out?” Mum asked.
Nanna sighed. “He’s mad for her. And she’s totally unsuitable. I can’t believe he’d fall for someone like that.”. I understood their tone more than their words, but in my fuzzy five year old head I guessed it was the very fact of being “totally unsuitable” that evoked the madness Uncle Barry had for Daphne. “Totally unsuitable”. The way Nanna had said it gave it a power beyond her words. “Totally unsuitable” made Daphne seem different from us, in a way that wasn’t good. It made Daphne interesting because I didn’t know anyone else who was totally unsuitable. Dad sometimes said someone was a cheat or a scoundrel and Mum sometimes said that someone was a gossip or not neighborly, but no-one else totally unsuitable. I said the words over and over in my head.
We loved Uncle Barry. Mum said he got us over-excited, because he held us upside down by our ankles and then tickled us. He brought sweets for us and sometimes gave us tuppence each.
“They’re coming tomorrow night for tea,” said Jennifer. “He’s bringing Daphne.”
I sat in the front garden waiting for them, but when I saw Uncle Barry’s car, I felt confused and rushed up the back behind the compost heap where Ronnie was building a fort. He got me to sort the sticks into piles – big ones, little ones and medium ones.
“Come on children,” Dad called out. “Dinner time.” We ran down to the back door.
“Go and wash your hands Lizzie,” Mum said. “And your face. And hurry. Ronnie, don’t let that door slam.”
In the dark hallway that led down to the bathroom I saw Uncle Barry kiss Daphne. She was coming out of the bathroom and he was waiting for her. Uncle Barry and Daphne didn’t see me while they were kissing. They were sort of squashed together – so squashed that I thought he wanted to eat her or she wanted to eat him. I’d never seen people kiss like that, but they stopped when they saw me. Uncle Barry put his fingers to his lips.
“Shhh….Not a word Lizzie,” he whispered, and then he laughed and picked me up and kissed me, just an ordinary kiss. I didn’t know the words for the sort of kiss he’d had with Daphne, but it wasn’t like the way he kissed me, or the kiss we got when Nanna and Grandpapa came, or a goodnight kiss. It was bigger and wilder. It was like when I had a frenzy and my mother said I had to be stopped.
That night we all sat at the dining room table, not the kitchen table where we usually ate. The grown-ups had the white serviettes with bluebells in one corner. Nanna had embroidered them a long time ago and they were one of Mum’s good things. We children had our usual serviettes and our serviette rings which we used every night. Larry, the baby, had been put to bed, because he was not old enough to sit at the table. I was just old enough, and I sat next to Daphne. She had golden hair but it wasn’t pinned back like Mum’s, but swept up in a swirl. She had red lipstick and her teeth were very white. She had a blue checked blouse with lace on the ends of the sleeve, and her finger nails were very long and pointy and matched the colour of her lipstick. I could smell her too. Her perfume was much sharper and stronger than Nanna’s. I thought it smelt wonderful and I wished Mum would wear a scent sometimes. Daddy had given her a bottle for Christmas but she never used it. I put some on once, but Mum smacked me and said she was sick of me touching her things.
That night we had corn beef with white sauce for dinner. My piece of corn beef still had the string in it, and the white sauce was all mucked up where Mum had cut up my meat, and I knew I couldn’t eat it, but I knew if I didn’t eat it, I wouldn’t be allowed to sit at the dining table next to Daphne, so I closed my eyes and stabbed with my fork and put the food in my mouth and tried to pretend it was something else.
“Lizzie’s eating with her eyes shut,” said Jennifer.
“Don’t show off Lizzie,” said Mum. “Eat properly. And mind you eat it all up.”
“Chil…chil… children… starving in India,” said Dad. Everyone was a bit stiff. It wasn’t like usual dinner when Uncle Barry came by himself, there were always lots of jokes and Dad and Barry opened a bottle of Melbourne Bitter, and Dad could talk more easily. On those nights we all ate in the kitchen, with the baby in his high chair.
Daphne leant down to me. “I sometimes used to eat with my eyes shut when I was little,” she said. “I don’t know why.”
“Lizzie does a lot of things they don’t know why,” said Uncle Barry. “She has an original streak.” That made the grown-ups laugh, and things seemed not quite so stiff. Daphne asked Jennifer about her piano lessons and then she said that she loved to play the piano, but she wasn’t very good. But Uncle Barry said she was a top party pianist.
“Clive could have been a concert pianist,” said Mum. “But he only plays classical music of course.”
“He was a child prodigy and now he’s a musical genius,” said Uncle Barry quickly. “Always had that classical bent.” I wondered where my Dad had his classical bent and what it looked like, but I knew not to ask. So I asked Daphne if the beads round her neck were pearls.
“Unfortunately, not,” she said. “Just imitation, and not very good ones at that.
“My Nanna has pearls that look like that,” I said.
“But Nanna’s certainly aren’t imitation,” said Mum.
Uncle Barry looked over at Daphne. “Elsie didn’t mean it like that.”
Mum was embarrassed. “Of course I didn’t. Your beads are very pretty Daphne.” I wanted to stay sitting next to Daphne, but we were sent to have our pudding in the kitchen because the grown-ups were going to have cheese and port and listen to Dad’s new 78 record.
“They’ve got cigarettes,” said Ronnie, when he peeped back into the dining room.
The three of us – Jennifer was the oldest, Ronnie next and then me – ended up sitting on Ronnie’s bed while he collected his marbles from the floor and put them in the little tartan bag Mum had made for him. Ronnie liked to keep his things tidy.
“Why is Daphne unsuitable?” I asked. The sharp smell of Daphne’s perfume was still with me, the sweep of her hair, the lace on her sleeve, the imitation pearls and the red lipstick that matched her long red nails. She was like a princess.
“She talks about how much things cost,” said Jennifer. “And she has those long fingernails. That’s why she can’t marry Uncle Barry.” Jennifer said it quite definitely and it was clear she understood the whole thing. She did not explain any more, because I was five and she was ten.
“She could cut her nails off and then she could marry Uncle Barry,” said Ronnie. He said it softly, in a considered way, at the same time tipping his marbles out of the tartan bag and counting them under his breath. It wasn’t easy counting marbles because some were worth two and the connie agate was worth three.
“Red nail polish is vulgar,” said Jennifer. Daphne’s unsuitability was more complicated than Ronnie and I could know. Jennifer was our ultimate source of knowledge about the world. She not only knew most things, but she could also play the piano and dance the highland fling.
I loved Daphne’s red nails so I knew I must be unsuitable too. Ronnie was clever and Jennifer knew everything, and Jennifer and Ronnie didn’t have frenzies like I did. They did not have to be stopped. Even when I felt a frenzy starting, I could not stop it coming. Sitting there, cross-legged on Ronnie’s worn green chenille quilt, I started to cry at the sadness of it.
“You can hold the connie agate,” said Ronnie, “so you stop crying.” He put it into my hand and tucked my fingers over it. Even when he was seven, Ronnie knew how to make a person feel better. But even with the connie agate in my hand, I kept bawling.
“Why are you crying?” asked Ronnie.
I looked at the marble and how the colours swirled around inside the glass.
“I like her fingernails,” I said. I uncurled my hand and let the connie agate drop onto the quilt and looked at my own nails which were bitten and grubby.
Ronnie and Jennifer started giggling. “You don’t cry about fingernails,” said Jennifer. But I still felt sad. When Uncle Barry had kissed Daphne in the hall, I knew there was something dark and deep in what they did.
And that dark and deep feeling was what I felt about Mum. It was a too much feeling. I had it when I watched her as she made our breakfast in her flowery apron with the red ric-rac braid. It worried me the way the flowers stopped climbing up the apron where the ties went round her waist. But I liked how ric-rac braid outlined the parts of the apron. It was an old apron, a little worn, but it was the prettiest thing my mother wore, the nearest thing to unsuitable. My passion for the apron was just the start of my deep dark feeling. I felt it everywhere, and sometimes it made me laugh too much, or talk too much, or just cry. Mum always stood very straight so she seemed tall, even though she was not. Sometimes, sitting at the breakfast table, I felt so much that I’d bang my spoon or spill my porridge or kick Ronnie under the table and Dad said I’d be in trouble any minute and then Mum would get the wooden spoon out. Jennifer and Ronnie seemed to have the right feelings for Mum because they didn’t do things like that.
The way she made breakfast was precise and careful. I liked the way her shoes were polished and the way the seam on her thick stockings divided the back of her leg in half. I liked the way she stood with the sunshine coming through the window so her hair looked shiny when it was still wet from the shower. She had brown hair which was always pinned back with gold coloured bobby pins. All that made everything inside me feel so big, as if it would burst out any minute.
A few weeks later when Nanna came on Thursday, as she did every Thursday, I sat under the table and watched the afternoon light through the faded seersucker table cloth. I could smell the stew in the oven. I could smell Nanna. Nanna had soft arms and she smelt of perfume and powder together. When she kissed you, it left lipstick, which she wiped off with her hankie. She wiped it quite hard, then she always showed you the hankie with the lipstick stain and said, “Goodness child, how will I get that lipstick stain off ?”
And Mum would say, “Oh Gladys, really.” And they’d laugh.
I sat under the table, very still, so they wouldn’t remember I was there. I could see Mum’s brown legs and her navy shoes and the bottom of the ric-rac apron with the flowers growing up it.
“I thought Clive was mad thinking there was a prowler,” said Mum. “He’s always going on about things that go bump in the night.”
“He’ll be alright Elsie,” said Nanna firmly. “Cut him some slack.”
“He does a lot of strange things since he came home.”
“It’s the war did it,” said Nanna. “There’s lots the same. He’ll come good.”
And they sipped their tea for a while.
“Thank god Daphne threw Barry over,” said Nanna. “It really broke his heart, he told me. He was crazy for her. He wanted to marry her.” She sniffed. “He’ll get over it eventually.”
“She thought she was too good for us,” said Mum.
“She was totally unsuitable.”