Posts Tagged ‘Lesbian Love Stories’

















“… the idea of time recedes with the expansion of consciousness.”
P.D. Ouspensky.

“For a believing physicist like myself, the separation between past, present, and
future has the value of a mere, albeit stubborn, illusion.”
Albert Einstein.

“The lack of an absolute standard of rest meant that one could not determine
whether two events that took place at different times occurred in the same position
in space.”
Stephen Hawking.

“Most people believe that time passes. In fact it stays where it is.”

















She awoke from a dream, of a field of ripening grain which seemed to her like a field of yellow hair undulating in all its glorious opulence. The sight stirred her quiescent blood like a memory, she remembered someone had called it the colour of torch-light. She had buried her lips in that memory. She knew it would pass in a moment. She gathered her moments now with a greater urgency. Now the twilight was deepening ever faster and darkness with its smattering of stars chased away the last glimmers of her youth. Her chair on the shadowed front porch was more frequently occupied, and chores formerly attended to with such sedulous purposiveness, now tended to be forgotten. She was otherwise engaged. Only the cat by dint of its unremitting importunities broke into her reveries, contriving in the instinctual manner of animals to secure for itself a daily saucer of near sour milk. But the silent potted poinsettia and ficus in the living room expired in a prolonged dry attenuation, all unnoticed.

She liked the front porch. The porch swing, the small gate-legged table piled high with yellowing journals covered with the indecipherable script she had so long affected as a guardian to her privacy, all lay fallow, trapped with her in a long suspension. It was a privacy no one had bothered to invade in all these years. She gazed at her chair, an overstuffed phenomenon of patchily fading claret, so solid and unmoving.

The chair connected her to the past. It had been a gift from an old friend, delightful and epicene, whose friendship had been a casualty of her marriage. Her friend had made his living in ‘home-furnishings.’ She laughed mirthlessly, recalling the phrase. He had now long since turned to dust, who in his way had tried to warn her. But she hadn’t listened, had she? His cautionary tale had missed its mark, as had that of the first Christian missionaries who described the terrors of hell to the inhabitants of Iceland, which then caused the doughty natives to respond “We shall be warm! We shall be warm!”

But he would have understood her sense of urgency about the present and the effort she was making now. He would have understood her sense that the clock hanging on her wall, a plain Seth Thomas (“What sayeth Thomas?” she mumbled,) now silent from her neglection, still slyly indulged  its devouring predilection in the secrecy of a parallel universe. “What is time?”– She answered herself: “Just something a clock measures.”

She had hidden her husband’s prized Hunter under a pile of rags in the walnut wash stand (he had loved watches, as she despised them now), but the clock defied her efforts to lower it from its accustomed place above the dusty whatnot. What did it matter. She could avoid its bland and frozen gaze by averting her own whenever she made her way through the house. Her gaze was turned more and more inward now. The cost of looking outside she disbursed prudently and with a calculated thrift.

Her old black dress grew shabbier and fustier, taking on a rusty sheen like the patina of ancient metal. She didn’t seem to notice. She was trying to notice other colours; the colours in her rioting untrammeled garden; the magenta cosmos, the violent yellows of the marigolds bordering the fence, planted years ago and persistently self-seeding. They were put there to deter the aphids from her prized roses. No matter that the roses, neither pruned nor divested of their hips for several seasons, had succumbed to their own dilatory expression of blooming, in a recalcitrant rhythm rather resembling her own. She noticed the passage of time as an interlocution – the drab sparrows chirping in the gnarled branches of her ramblers, saying “Why? why?”, and the silent swarms of gnats hanging suspended  in the air offering their tacit answer after the passing of a sprinkling rain.

The mint patch spilling over its nominal boundary of stones was frequented by swarms of paper wasps, who, having constructed a sinister convolution under the dove cote, had forced the doves to move elsewhere. She noticed all these intrusions of the natural world with a vague tolerance, as a reverberation of vitality allowed to impinge on her thoughts. Yet she was busy recording her moments. She was occupied. It was her time of expurgation.
She had dragged her bed into the parlour because the path of the moon in summer traversed the arc of its window during the night. She extinguished the porch light because it pained her that so many fragile visitants, drawn irresistibly to it, met their desperate ends against a treacherous illumination. No lesser lights competed with the milky effusions she so loved to study. She welcomed the encroachments of clouds in the night sky, as they hung suspended over the tree-tops, and described to herself the colours of the gauzy shadows. Sometimes they made her smile pensively.

Summer was now like a woman, who after having played out her passion lies still, her eyelids closed, her heartbeat slowing to a quieter rhythm, letting her skin cool to the touch of a lover. She loved and feared this season with its hint of death in the yellow tinted leaves. Its cooling breezes rattling the branches of her elm and the world, filling with a sibilant echo, were tinged with a hint of menace, malevolence and dread. She was receptive to their suggestion.

A long time ago before she had married and made this her home, she had lived in a far larger and more ancient house. The scenes of her childhood had been played out on balconies where the moonlight splashed like cool water on old stone ledges, and where mosses and creeping vines hid amongst the deeper shadows visible from her window. In rooms above the stairs, the skylights wantonly admitted the moon, and the walls were scattered with the  shadowy fluttering shapes of leaves and branches, which sometimes suggested themselves into intuitions. There she had watched with someone, waiting and awaiting her time.

The name she searched for was elusive. She had forced herself to forget that name, and now her memory stubbornly persisted in retaining its obsolete instruction despite her repeated promptings. Perhaps she had forgotten the name, but the rest she could not forget.

There had been someone, bright and quick, who slipped easily into being imperious, and who had not a trace of melancholy. This other was full of youthful enthusiasms, affectations of the decadence of most things French, Baudelaire, “Gaspard de la Nuit,” Ravel, flirting with the romantic darkness which youth prefers to the plain good sense of older folks. She read “Undine” aloud: she refused to let the time merely pass. She made the moments urgent, as if she had known there was a reason to. But she had also known how to speak softly, and wait for her words to sink in.

But it was all so long ago. A vagueness and disquiet still overcame her when she tried to remember. The cat stared at her with his yellow eyes:  Yellow as the moon, as the marigolds, as the hair she remembered. She had read an old poem once, written by a woman, about hair yellower than torch light. She must remember: Something important depended upon it.

She walked urgently to the empty bedroom, hurriedly searching among the things in the unlit closet. She delved feverishly in its recesses, amongst the folds of the dark and musty garments of another time, plundering their secrets for the thing hidden from herself. Yes, now she remembered. But now she almost did not wish to remember. She grew faint with the remembering, sitting with her head bowed, on the cool floor amongst the old dresses.

So these were the memories she had evaded. She remembered. She remembered the garden:

The garden was strung with Japanese lanterns shedding their intimate light on the leaves and grass, and, preeminently for her, on the women, beautiful, strange, alluring, and exotic: women of unassailable poise and elegantly travested sex.
She looked at the picture in her hand; at the sleek head, the clear and deeply thoughtful gaze.
She remembered.

“Walk with me in the garden. I want us to disappear for a moment. I’ll introduce you to everyone later.”
“Shouldn’t we do that first? Don’t you think they might find us rude?”
“Who? these women? Heavens no! They only observe proprieties in the breach: If they notice we’re missing they’ll know why!”
“And what is why? – I’m afraid I’m not as sophisticated or bohemian as you are, and I can’t tell at all if I’m behaving strangely or simply fitting in!”
“Oh you fit in all right. All that is needed is that you be beautiful, and you are!”
Are you teasing me by quoting Baudelaire again?”
“Oh that! ‘What do I care if you be wise, be beautiful, be melancholy’?
She paused to turn and look over the hydrangea bush at some couples dancing in the punctuated light,
‘Why, no, not entirely: I could never be so rash as to discount wisdom – and I wouldn’t ever wish you sad.”
“I am not reassured. I suddenly feel as if I’m in another world.
She looked at the tall woman standing next to her in the suggestion of light as a match flared, a cigarette lit.
“I suddenly feel that I don’t know you, and that its you I need introducing to.”
“You do know me. You’ve always known me – and if you don’t you shall! – But you’re right. This is another world. It’s a world that I’m making mine, and Darling, I do so want you in it. And you needn’t worry about meaningless conventions, they’re not needed here.”
“But I was brought up to be conventional, and surely we still need to be polite!”
“But that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to tell you. Everyone here has made either a career or a religion of breaking the rules anyway, and I’ve already told them this is your first party – of this sort. They expect you to behave a little strangely.”
“I’ll hold you responsible for any faux pas I might happen to make; since I don’t  know which rules I’m supposed to break, I might break all the wrong ones!”
“It won’t matter, and  then you could blame me for any lapses. Its rather expected of me I’m afraid! But look, how busy with each other they all are. No one is looking at you – at us.”
She had continued her halted thought –
“I’m afraid I would be stupid – not melancholy or sad – but I think I’m just a little afraid.”

They had moved away from the intimate conspiratorial voices of the revelers, as they sat talking in convivial groups on the lawn and away from the sporadic glow of cigarettes and the fading sound of the gramophone, its needle  now suddenly stuck persistently in the groove of some repeated phrase in the smoky rendition of the love song which had been drifting over to them in tinny fragments.
She felt, rather than knew, that something culminal was about to happen. Something in her quickened.

She was pressed against the trunk of an elm. She felt its corrugated bark stick to the backs of her arms and her summer dress and she felt the bruising intensity of hands. She was being kissed.

She felt like a drunken moth pinned to the wax board, but she didn’t care. A heady reckless excitement overtook her in the darkness. The glint of fiery hair against a dark fabric seemed like a lapse of memory, or a flaring of unbidden  imagination, she wouldn’t know which; but somewhere there was the image of a pale wrist and long blunt fingers poised on the dark wool of a thigh, and then the alchemical transmutation of her “No, no” To a gradual “Yes,” in a sudden rush of love or need, or a desire she never guessed would haunt her in the years to come. No names or words or concepts seemed as if they could intrude, but there was improbably imposed on her impressionable mind, a night with the association of a sonnet.

That was what she remembered. That in summary was the recapitulation of her brief capitulation.

And this was the part she both must remember and needed to forget: No matter that it might have been that her hand was forced, or that she might have been tipped out of the boat before she had learned to swim. What mattered was the flash of instant and incontrovertible recognition, of her utter familiarity with the element, regardless of how deep or disturbing, regardless of how much unanticipated.

What followed was by any standard a craven repudiation.

For later, she had again returned to ‘No’.

Some hidden demon in her of obduracy and panic brought the new, fragile world down around them both in sharpened splinters. She ignored the anguished  “Don’t do it.” The passionate admonitions, the “What profiteth a man” – or a woman for that matter. She resolved her dissonances in  an oracular fashion, based on a reading of the splinters of signs, and so she could not, would not, know the full extent of what she must keep hidden.

She had been driven home in a sober, fractured silence. She had had a total failure of nerve: And of something else.

She could now see that there could have been no gracious introduction possible for a mind caught in the vice of a fearful conventionalism drawn to masquerade itself in injured modesty, and weeks later, alone in her room, she had succumbed to a fit of silent panic. The terrifyingly personal events of that night, indistinguishable to her from what she had chosen, in her confusion, to think of as negligently cruel, blotted out her senses as surely as a powerful surge overwhelming a delicate circuit.

She chose Edwin, chose him deliberately as a dubious refuge; but from what? Perhaps she had sought to lay her secret self where she was certain  it would be unassailably safe; in the hands of someone who was  incapable of receiving it. Edwin, she thought, and his preoccupations with ledgers, profits, bonds and emoluments, with actuarials and compounding interests – Edwin would  suit her. Perhaps he had laid his devotion at her feet for the same reasons.

She laughed a cracked laugh remembering. She had excised a part of her soul, and a scar had grown around the gash, which in some strange way had proven itself more tender than the wound, but she had done her best to see to it that there was no longer anything she could cut or burn herself upon.

There had been nothing fiery about Edwin. His sparse demonstrations, as most other things about him, left her unmoved. His smell not her smell. She bore his fumbling excursions into a self, whose inviolability he could not fully perceive, borne with a knowledge of her deservedness.
The marriage had been not so much a marriage as a misunderstanding: a false agreement. It had not been a fair exchange: Oh no, not at all.

But somehow the years passed in a paradox of ever deferred and ever elusive resolution, and somehow, this thing in her, all mixed with pain and love, death and remembrance, refused to diminish. Now it was all so finally and beautifully clear.

She stood up and gazed in the mirror, at her reflection, her extreme slenderness, her fading hair, her delicate neck, her declivity of cheek, her full lips. Her eyes filled with derision. She felt a long exhalation. She knew what she most had wanted; most had feared.

She walked into the garden, picking the marigolds, filling her bosom with their bitter scented pungency until they spilled unheeded onto the long grass. She returned to the bedroom and severed the stout sash from the dusty blinds. She poured all that was left in the bottle of milk  into a blue  mixing bowl and set it before the cat, watching him taking pleasure in the simple act of feeding. Then, surrendering to a sudden impulse, she wound the clock.

She took the journals from the table and marked a page she remembered with a photograph. The wind chimes stirred in a sporadic murmur, and she suddenly yearned for music. She wound up the gramophone and put on a record.

The sash brought down a shower of dust upon her as it snaked over the beam. The wind chimes stirred again, in what seemed like the commencement of a sacred liturgy. The arced sliver of moon followed its nightly purpose.
“I’ll only be a moment”, she thought.

The table wobbled, but held her weight for a moment before it crashed against the porch railing, then fell its splintering way to the grass below.

The gramophone needle continued its fallow hiss as she smelled the marigolds, remembering their colour.

The clock began to strike.

















The plangent sounds of the clock rang suddenly out, almost causing him to spill his coffee. It brought him back to the present in the unavoidably disturbing way clocks have of intruding into inner lives; disrupting them, taking them over and loudly asserting that the tyranny of the here-and-now could never be broken.  He wished it could:  that time could somehow be turned back on itself, and life remade simple. He struggled with a welter of emotions; fragments of the previous night, a persistent sense that something was going wrong and slipping out of his grasp, and the disturbing thought that perhaps his wife did not find him to be entirely agreeable.

Breakfast had been served, eaten, and its remains cleared away, but he still continued to sit at the table. He seemed absent; his mind elsewhere, not so much assailed by as imbued with impure thoughts, which he sought ineffectually to brush aside as he did the crumbs on his linen waistcoat. He wadded the table napkin in a sweaty hand, fingering the letter which lay beneath it. A slight sound escaped him, of displeasure at his internal disquiet, of sour denial. But the thoughts reoccurred. Strangely, in an ironical twist of uxoriality gone awry, his wife was the object of his prurient ruminations. He watched her secretly as she went about her business, tidying and cleaning, putting up and putting by. He had his secret speculations with regard to the cause of her imperviousness to his attentions, but they did not fit themselves neatly into any reconstruction of her past, at least not as he knew it. He knew she was chaste. His misgivings did not  include any speculations about her frames of reference and never extended to the unsafe ground of objective comparison. Still, it irked him fiercely that while he was transformed by ardour to gibbering puerility she remained poised and dignified. She seemed to succumb to his invasive attentions with a secret grace and an unassailable dignity.

The years since their marriage had not dimmed her loveliness, and instead of the pall of familiarity which customarily infects unruffled connubial arrangements, a certain withdrawal, a subtle imposition of distance had ‘leant enchantment to the view.’ Her eyes and skin retained the brilliance of youth, but now an additional depth, something he had not seen before, enhanced the currency of her ordinary beauty.
“Edwin, are you staring at me? Have I spilled something on my dress?”
He struggled for a semblance of composure, mumbling something about her brooch as she turned to lift the sash which opened the window.

He loved his wife. Didn’t he? He stood in secret awe of her. She spoke French with an old-fashioned propriety, played the piano with a personal delicacy, and sang in a slightly husky voice which, though it would  assuredly forfeit a purist’s approval, retained in charm and appeal what it lacked in training. He loved his wife, but he could not fathom why she had chosen him for a husband, and he could never tell if she loved him, though he had come to assume it.

If he had been more emotionally gifted, more perceptive in the area of the female psyche, or more experienced with women, he might have apprehended the elemental incongruity of her choice, but he was none of these. He was not romantic, or temperamentally disposed to romance. He was merely heir to a species of disturbance which  perhaps in other men might have evoked a more surreptitious expression of concupiscent impulse, or a weakness for drink, but in him only caused a deepening of gruffness and an undue emphasis on his already unappealing habits of physicality, his involuntary grunts, untimely sighs and persistent indigestion.

“You have a letter from Vivian.”
She stopped her wiping of the whatnot and stood motionless for a moment.
“Yes I know. It’s an invitation to tea this afternoon. She was expecting some new gramophone records to arrive in the mail last week – We were going to listen to music.”

He struggled with the upsurge of ire which threatened to choke him, dumbly suppressing it, absurdly wounded by the unconscious intimacy of that ‘we.‘ She caught his look and looked away. He managed to speak. “Will you be home for dinner?”
“I might be, but if  I’m not you needn’t worry; I’ll leave you a casserole and some dessert in the oven.”
It was not his dinner he was worried about. It was her. But what could he say?

He detested that woman and thought her ‘unnatural’. And he was right, at least based upon his limited suppositions of what was to be deemed natural in women. She was all that made him uneasy: a childhood friend of his wife’s, and therefore claimant to a deeper and longer standing intimacy than he suspected as being his own, a bluestocking, someone who read Latin, Greek and French!, someone he supposed his parents would have referred to as being “upper-crust.” Above all, she was a woman of independent means: a thoroughly bad influence.

He was completely unable to voice his thoughts. If he were so imprudent as to do so, his wife would then accuse him of trying to start a quarrel, and with her characteristic deftness of speech, convert his innocuous words into some bitter thing with a lingering aftertaste. She would by effortless implication make  him feel as if he’d misread his lines and committed a ghastly violation of his prescribed role. He would then find himself entangled in an intractable net of resentment and inexpressible frustration. He felt his stomach begin a symphony of disquiet against the background of his angry thoughts. He glanced at his Hunter in an effort to compose himself and began readying himself to leave the house.

He had heard about this woman, his wife’s newly returned friend, from his own friends, the ones he played poker and billiards with. He had been told of a very uncertain past, of outlandish dress, of books and pictures delivered – French novels, lithographs. His queasiness increased at the thought of a French novel he had read: One about a besotted husband and an uncontrollably romantic wife who deceived  him, exulting in her deception, “I have a lover! I have a lover!”

It didn’t bear thinking about. He knew he must not speak. To do so would mean to admit that he allowed himself to be the recipient of indiscreet garrulosity and gossip; that his friends in the post office steamed open letters and packages, and that he had let himself be informed by a cleaning lady who had been persuaded by one of their wives to inspect bookshelves and somewhat else besides in that house she was being paid to clean.

His wife would not fail to appreciate the irony if he complained about her friend’s questionable morality, thus laying his own vulnerabilities unacceptably bare. She would not fail to use her rebarbative wit in a devastating riposte. He was not her match. He knew it.

This was new in their marriage. This unsheathed display of sharpened wit and mental acuity. It disconcerted him. It showed up his own species of intelligence – so aptly suited to bureaucracy and accountancy and fiduciary administration – as meagre,  and exiguous, which is to say, to no advantage at all. He rather felt as if he had suddenly found a kitten, who had hitherto only purred by the fire, to be possessed of an uncalculated yet devastatingly effective atavism. His own primitive instincts, if he had ever had any to begin with, had been dulled by generations of placid good breeding between sober clerks and the dull daughters of others such. He was about to give voice to some uneasily shaping thought, which had to do with his antipathy. It had something to do with her manner when she returned from these visits;  her accentuated thoughtfulness and inwardness, as if she were visibly infected with a reflectiveness he could not hope to penetrate. He could not abide this mood of hers, this unilaterally imposed sense of privacy, of exclusion. It peeved him and increased his anxiety and his irascibility. Why did she always send notes? Why didn’t she use the telephone like normal people? He could then at least have heard half the conversation. But he felt his thoughts to have ventured out too far, and retreated.

As he left the room he saw her pick up the letter and raise it to her lips.

She settled herself down from the aftermath of a squabble, no less real for its invisibility, its unexpressed animus. It had upset her surprisingly little. In five years she had come to know her husband as one might an intimate associate. She had set aside her feelings when she married him, resolving never to venture into the depths she knew to exist behind her ordinary thoughts. She had ignored the advice of friends, one in particular, who had himself succumbed to marriage despite misgivings and who had told her of his regrets.

She brushed the nap on the arm of the chair she sat in as she tried to recall the details of a conversation. Charles had been a mutual friend of all three of them, Vivian, Edwin, herself, but Edwin had discouraged the friendship, stopping just short of forbidding it, and she had given in, sensing that once having chosen, she could no longer waver. Still, it had seemed a prudent decision to marry, and marriage had enabled her life to go on smoothly, if not indeed so placidly, for the past several years: Until this one; until now.

Now she had the feeling that her life was about to change. She felt something struggling within her, trying to escape its inner bounds, like a thin shaft of grass, a plumule emerging irresistibly from a tiny crack in the pavement, its impetus for growth unimpeded by any discouraging thought of an uncertain future: In darker moments it hovered like an unseen presence in the house, lurking behind the heavy furniture, the clock, the curtains; waiting to spring forth in an unexpected and unguarded moment. Her gaze wandered over her garden, at the roses in the first stage of their summer bloom; old fashioned  Albas, their pink and white delicacy somehow resisting the onslaught of the fierce May sun, the tender petals refusing to shrivel and droop, to die until they had lived out their season.

And perhaps she too had refused to wilt and droop under the stultifying depletion of her marriage. There were books to be read, journals to be kept up with, and evenings to be whiled away in light conversation, card games, knitting, embroidery. She had managed by a sheer persistency of effort to engage herself in an unremitting busyness, and to defer this day by polishing her housewifely skills to a high lustre. She had contrived to deflect and postpone the very thing which was happening to her now: but now it was here. The thoughts which arose in her mind in the middle of the night when the world receded, the thoughts which haunted her like unquiet souls tapping on the lids of their coffins, were now oh so close to emerging. She was no longer toying with the idea, but entertaining the prospect of their rupture, to wreak havoc on her ordered existence, with a sense of anticipation and even joy. She imagined vaguely how the carefully crafted edifice of her matrimonial endeavours might crumble. She examined her thoughts for a trace of unacknowledged fear. She found a trace of it, but no more.

She had thought that her marriage might be undertaken in the pioneering spirit of an ancestral sort she had read about in novels, in which home, even homeland, relatives, and close family – everything beloved and familiar – had to be left behind in order to start a new life. She had thought to arrive at a place where the old no longer impinged upon the new, except in the form of a harmless nostalgia, and then only at a great distance. But she had failed to take into account the hardships and tedium of the journey, the toll it would take on her. She had utterly failed to grasp or gauge the extent of her feelings. She could not know of the irrepressible alchemy of thought and sensibility left to ferment in the sealed recesses of her psyche, of the sterility and privation visited upon the remainder of her life by an unnatural sequestration of her natural vitality.

Yet she had felt herself helpless to unstop the lid. She looked at the letter again; at its angular script, and felt herself begin a slow emergence from the fog of her old habits of thought, into a strange place; greener, wilder, and less known in its dangers and delights, than the safe well-ordered pastoral of her history up to the present.

So in the late afternoon, she drove the lovely open miles to Vivian’s house, recalling the past, and realigning it with the present.  a bunch of freshly-picked roses on the seat beside her. She rolled all the windows down, unmindful of the dust, knowing only that the illimitability of the sky must not be denied, and that all her senses must be prevailed upon to bear witness to her slowly  yet irresistibly coalescing resolve. She heard with delight the sound of her gears shifting from a minor to a major key as she drove past the houses, copses, fields and tobacco sheds she had now come to recognise.

She paused in the driveway, still a distance from the front porch, allowing the sound of the engine to die away, waiting for her own thoughts to still. There was that ordinary house, hollyhocks blazing in the last light, a trumpet vine draped thick and sturdy over the side fence, the front door wide open – the sound of summer insects. She waited  for the sight of that figure to emerge and walk towards her, in a choreography her mind had rehearsed for endless moments past.

The evening did get on to a propitious start with strong, cold martinis and the conversation they were intended to facilitate.
“Why did you do it? Why did you run away?”
“I don’t know – I think I was terrified.”
“Of what?
“Of that world – those oh-so- assured women – of you even. I was shaking inside. You had suddenly become like them, and I felt you had gone on without me.”
“But surely –”
“Of drowning. I knew I couldn’t swim. I couldn’t keep up – I could hardly even speak! It was all to much for me – I couldn’t do it.
“Couldn’t do what? What was there to do?!”
“Those people – you had crossed over from my world to theirs – I felt as if you had left us and gone over to their side, and I could never follow. Those women… I would never have been able to understand them – That world…. I wouldn’t have known what to say – they were all so clever and sharp and – Oh I suppose I felt like an idiot – a child. I felt – I felt you had done that – made me feel like that, like a child who is suddenly made to have dinner with the grown-ups, and who knows she still can’t eat without spilling!”
“But they were just people – not at all like that! And they were my friends – they had invited me!”
“Oh but they weren’t – just – well, just anything – they seemed older, and sophisticated – they danced with each other! They were unreachable, and unreal – they seemed as if they were from another planet! And then…”
“And then?”
“And then…”
Her voice seemed to lose its footing and stumble against an invisible object which blocked its path.
The whirring of the cicadas grew louder.
“And then – you know ‘and then.'”
“No I don’t! I was there, and I loved you! I told you!”
“Yes you were – but where was I? I felt as if I was somewhere else – maybe floating above the trees with the cicadas.”
She emptied her glass and asked for it to be refilled. The sound of the ice crashed loudly against the shaker.
“You know, here in the South cicadas swarm every 13 and 17 years – its because there are two kinds of them, and since they only swarm together twice every hundred years they don’t get mixed up and breed with each other.”
What are you talking about? I don’t know what you mean –  and you’re doing it again. You’re making me dizzy.”
“That’s what you’re doing now.”
“No I’m not. And its only been five – not 13 – or God forbid! 17 years.”
“Only?” It never felt like only to me. And you were my first.”
“Or to me. And you mine. But you had gone so far ahead of me. And I wasn’t your only, was I? There have been others.”
“Not like this, and they are all in the past.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. And I am here now. I didn’t change.”
” I have, but I’m still the old-fashioned sort.”
“Yes, that’s why you married – and I didn’t.”
The words shocked her in the way that ordinary things sometimes do when one sees them in an unexpected way.
“I didn’t know that world – you wanted that world – you already belonged. So I knew you had to be there, and I knew I couldn’t. I knew it was too much for me.”
“You didn’t choose me, you rejected me – and you chose that stodge Edwin! God! I couldn’t believe it – I still can’t.”
“Darling, I couldn’t do it then, I knew it would be too much for me. I couldn’t understand. I was lost. I didn’t want to be made known that way. At least marriage is anonymous. You can say that much for it. I didn’t want to be  made public – to be talked about in whispers and discretely pointed at – Oh I know you wouldn’t have seen or heard anything, but I would have. I would have felt as if I was being stared at and and whispered about as I walked down the street. I didn’t want private parties, and to have my secrets known.”
“I never guessed … It was not at all that way for me. I felt it was a place I could go to from the world, away from it – where I could be myself – with women like me.”
“It wasn’t like that for me. I was terrified. Anyway, its different now isn’t it?”
“Let’s go inside. I’m cold, and we can pick over the rubble some more.”

The talk quickened inside.Their words seemed less spread-out than before, and it seemed as if they talked for hours, picking a careful path to the present, sweeping aside the bits of treachery and cowardice and misunderstanding and of course the pain. They came to a shared moment. They discovered to their delight that all there seemed to be to anybody’s salvation, and certainly to their own, was just a second chance.

It was late, and very dark. Vivian was quietly smoking a cigarette.
“Were you happy – at all –  these last years?”
“Happy? hardly happy. I used to think I could be content, but I couldn’t be that either. No; not happy.” She considered the implications of  this seemingly unnecessary question: The reason for it, its unasked counterpart, and searched for both answers. She started to explain how she  had thought of herself as being more like a corpse lodged in some underwater tangle, which might at any moment have risen unbidden to the surface, refusing any longer to hide its gruesomeness in the weeds, than anything remotely resembling happy. She expressed herself in words to that effect, sensing that she made an act of contrition in so doing. She drew tight the cord between her mistake, and her remorse.
“God! that sounds terrible.”
“It feels terrible – even now. I felt like a sinner who wanted to be saved, from my transgressions, because I felt that all my choices had been wrong, and that I was doomed – What could I have chosen anyway? There were no choices left – Until you came back. Why did you?”
“You asked, so I had to.”
“I merely ‘asked,’ and you ‘had to’? God! I wish I had ever been capable of such clarity. I’ve never been able to read my own heart – until now that is. Everything about it used to elude me; its needs, its desires, its very voice; all mysterious and unknown. That’s why I still can’t trust myself entirely. I’ve been a coward and a fool, and the choices I made, which I thought would keep me from pain, were the very ones which plunged me deepest into the pit.”
“And now?”
“And now, I still don’t trust myself to know – Her voice grew clouded, and she felt her eyes turn moist. “I am afraid that I might plunge both of us, all three of us now, into another terrible mess.”
“But you must choose! Remember how you used to quote Pascal? ‘Il faut parier.  Cela n’est pas volontaire: Vous êtes embarqué…'”
“You know that meant something else, and not this – and I did choose, though disasterously. But you should have explained my choices to me when you quoted Pascal to me a  long time ago – when we were at that party. You should have explained….”
“How could I have? You didn’t let me. You seemed as if you were about to shatter – and  you wouldn’t have understood then. You still might have chosen other than I would have wished.”
“I might  have understood more – if you had tried.”
“You made it clear you didn’t want me.”
“Yes – perhaps I did, but you should have known even if I didn’t. You might have been able to make me see…”
“But this is now – so what about now? – Imagine if you could choose now. What would you choose?”
She paused for a moment before answering. The sound of a cricket inside the room grew suddenly and feverishly loud.
“I would choose another life – away from there, away from everything: from Edwin.”
“And where would that be”?
“I don’t know – but somewhere far away I think, maybe back in California – and I think it would have to be with you.”
“With me!”
“Yes. You would have to be a part of any complete life I could ever have.”
“Darling, you know the kind of life I have chosen – or has chosen me – It’s not a part of the sane and ordinary world you live in. And I can tell you now about that evening: you were right, you might have been a fish out of water, for all your accomplishments. There were movie actresses there – two in particular whom I’m sure you must have recognised– and a director and a singer, and a famous photographer. I think we were the only ordinary people there. No one there lived – lives – a settled life.”
“But my world is not any longer settled, or ordinary. Its rough and bloody unpredictable and full of gaps and nasty pitfalls, and running into things in the dark.”
“And you think another kind of life, a life with me, would be simpler?”
“Not simpler, but  – more whole – more of a piece – more… put together. It would be more natural.”
“Oh God! natural! That’s priceless! How ironic! You thought Edwin was natural!”
“I know I deserved that, but you don’t have to remind me. But I did; and he is – but not as I  am. I don’t care much anymore about what that the rest of the world might think, and that they will doubtless see things his way and not mine.”
“And I am not merely a bitter – or even a convenient – pill to be swallowed so that you might be cured of a bad marriage?”
“I know. I never meant that you were.”
“Then what did you mean?”
Only that I can no longer be other than myself, even though I don’t quite know what that is, and that I want to find myself there with you – if you let me. I thought I could go to sleep and wake up and leave it all behind me like a dream, but I couldn’t, and I can’t.”
“Are you saying you love me?”
“Yes. That is what I am saying. I have felt like a glass you let fall, and I want to be put back together. I feel I must, because another future might be fatal to all that I am.”
“And are you sure this time?  You’re not going to lose your nerve again?”
“No. I know now what I didn’t know before.”

She drove home in the darkest part of the night. She knew herself to be no longer willing to simply succumb to the minatory passage of time: To arrive at senescence a dried up husk, doing a grotesque shuffle in the middle of the dance floor, after the band had left and the music died. She might have gone on protecting what she dared not risk, long after she had ceased to be desirable, shriveling and hardening in odd places, and learning too late that there would be no takers of the sort she had dreamed about, and that she would die with the mouldering hoard of her faded youth and rapidly decomposing beauty. But now she would not. Her memory of the previous hours, slow, halting, tentative then rapturous, electrifying, and ineradicable, would ever mean that she would now choose again.

The stars had advanced in a perceptible slice of arc when she pulled into to her own driveway. For the second time that day but in what seemed an indescribable age ago, she sat and waited, listening for her inner clamour to subside and  silence to descend. The darkness seemed impenetrable in the moments after she extinguished the headlights. She noticed that the porch light was out, but the window of the bedroom upstairs glowed ominously. She dreaded going inside. As her eyes adjusted she noticed how the outline of the elm tree made deeper incursions into the darkness. She let something in her be invaded by that soothing blackness. She felt the glory of night, its newness to her, its resonance with what was beginning to be fully and quietly infused in her thoughts.

She left Vivian, reluctantly, to return to her own home, still thinking of this place as home, and now she wondered at the word, at its meaning.  The house outlined itself against the night like a hulk; a boulder. She had tried to find a place for herself within its walls, within its shelter, but it had turned on  her, constricting and suffocating. Something had gone awry, like a bit of grit caught under an eyelid, and had gone on and on tearing and grinding away at her soft tissues. She had not noticed till this moment how she had felt  herself to be both grit and eye.

He was awake, waiting for her as she had expected. At first their words came measuredly, then erratically, as the bitterness and truth of a conversation long deferred flew about the room like crazed birds beating themselves against invisible panes. She was amazed at how unprepared he was for what he saw his life becoming; at how disabled he was in the unperceived privilege, which had masqueraded in his thoughts as unquestioned as the laws of nature. She pitied him, and was thus rendered impervious to his invective, unwittingly inflicting upon him an unforgettable and unintentioned mortal wound. All of life had seemed unexpectedly to become a weapon leveled him and everything about life that before had been merely ordinary. He stared at her, his lips bursting with unspilled words. She felt his bitterness about to overflow.

There was a moment when he struggled for control. He turned out the light. She could feel him willing her to get into the bed beside him, to take her accustomed place by his side. Disgust mingled with her pity: for his unclouded assumptions regarding the marital servility he had grown to expect and which had made him an unwitting victim to her unexamined, by him, submission. But it lasted only a moment. Sadness, generosity, and again pity, swiftly reasserted themselves within her. She stood silent for a moment, seeing before her a fellow spirit, embarking as she was, albeit along a vastly different path, upon a journey, a destination which only she now wished to reach.

She stooped swiftly to kiss him, then left the room, closing the door gently behind her.

She heard the clock striking as she slowly walked down the stairs.












by Dia Tsung.

Time: Chantal Kreviazuk

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Jane Vance Rule (March 28, 1931 – November 27, 2007)



















“I’m sorry I’m late, darling,” Virginia said, having to pick up and embrace three-year-old Clarissa before she could kiss Katherine hello. “My last patient needed not only a new crown but some stitches for a broken heart. Why do people persist in marriage?”
“Your coat’s cold,” Clarissa observed soberly.
“So’s my nose,” Virginia said, burying it in the child’s neck. “It’s past your bath time and your story time, and I’ve probably ruined dinner.”
“No,” Katherine said. “We’re not eating until seven-thirty. We’re having a guest.”
“Daddy’s new friend,” Clarissa said. “And I get to stay up until she comes.”
“She said she needed to talk with us,” Katherine explained. “She sounded all right on the phone. Well, a little nervous but not at all hostile. I thought, perhaps we owe her that much?”
“Or him?” Virginia wondered.
“Oh, if him, I suppose I should have said no,” Katherine decided.
“People who don’t even want to marry him think this is odd enough.”
“Odd about him?”
“Even he thinks it odd about him,” Katherine said.
“Men have an exaggerated sense of responsibility in the most peculiar directions,” Virginia said. “We can tell her he’s a perfectly nice man, can’t we?” She was now addressing the child.
“Daddy said I didn’t know who was my mommie,” Clarissa said.
“I have two mommies. Will Elizabeth be my mommie, too?”
“She just might,” Virginia said. “What a lucky kid that would make you.”
“Would she come to live with us then?” Clarissa asked.
“Sounds to me as if she wants to live with Daddy.” Virginia said.
“So did you, at first,” Clarissa observed.
Both women laughed.
“Your bath?” Virginia ordered and carried the child up the stairs while Katherine returned to the kitchen to attend to dinner.
Clarissa was on the couch in her pajamas, working a pop-up book of Alice in Wonderland with Virginia, when the doorbell rang.
“I’ll get that,” Katherine called from the kitchen.
Elizabeth, in a fur-collared coat, stood in the doorway, offering freesias.
“Did he tell you to bring them?” Katherine asked, smiling.
“He said we all three liked them,” Elizabeth answered. “But don’t most women?”
“I’m Katherine,” Katherine said, “wife number one.”
“And I’m Virginia, wife number two,” Virginia said, standing in the hall.
“And I’m Elizabeth, as yet unnumbered,” Elizabeth said. “And you’re Clarissa,”
Clarissa nodded, using one of Virginia’s legs as a prop for leaning against or perhaps hiding behind.
Elizabeth was dressed, as the other two women were, in very well cut trousers and an expensive blouse, modestly provocative. And she was about their age, thirty. The three did not so much look alike as share a type, all about the same height five feet seven inches or so (he said he was six feet tall but was, in fact, five feet ten and a half), slightly but well proportioned, with silky, well cut hair and intelligent faces. They were all competent assured women who intimidated only unconsciously.
Virginia poured three drinks and a small glass of milk for Clarissa,who was allowed to pass the nuts and have one or two before Katherine took her off to bed.
“She looks like her father,” Elizabeth observed.
“Yes, she has his lovely eyes, ” Virginia agreed.
“He doesn’t know I’m here,” Elizabeth confessed. “Oh, I intend to tell him. I just didn’t want it to be a question, you see?”
“He did think it a mistake that Katherine and I ever met. We didn’t, of course, until after I’d married him. I didn’t t know he was married until quite a while after he and I met.”
“He was a patient of yours?” Elizabeth asked.
“He’s been quite open with me about both of you from the beginning, but we met in therapy, of course and that does make such a difference.”
“Does it?” Virginia asked. “I’ve never been in therapy.”
“Haven’t you?” Elizabeth asked, surprised. “I would have thought both of you might have considered it.”
“He and I?”
“No, you and Katherine.”
“We felt very uncomplicated about it,” Virginia said, “once it happened. It was such an obvious solution.”
“For him?”
“Well, no, not for him, of course. Therapy was a thing for him to consider.”
Katherine came back into the room. “Well, now we can be grownups.”
“She looks like her father,” Elizabeth observed again.
“She has his lovely eyes,” it was Katherine’s turn to reply.
“I don’t suppose a meeting like this could have happened before the women’s movement,” Elizabeth said.
“Probably not,” Katherine agreed. “I’m not sure Virginia and I could have happened before the women’s movement. We might not have known what to do.”
“He tries not to be antagonistic about feminism,” Elizabeth said.
“Oh, he always been quite good about the politics. He didn’t resent my career,” Virginia offered.
“He was quite proud of marrying a dentist,”  Katherine said. “I think he used to think I wasn’t liberated enough.”
“He doesn’t think that now,” Elizabeth said.
“I suppose not,” Katherine agreed.
“The hardest thing for him has been facing. . . the sexual implications. He has felt. . .unmanned.”
“He put it more strongly than that in the past,” Virginia said.
“Men’s sexuality is so much more fragile than ours,” Elizabeth said.
“Shall we have dinner?” Katherine suggested.
“He said you you were a very good cook,” Elizabeth said to Katherine
“Most of this dinner is Virginia’s. I got it out of the freezer,” Katherine explained. “I’ve gone back to school, and I don’t have that much time.”
“I cook in binges,” Virginia said, pouring the wine.
“At first he said he thought the whole thing was some kind of crazy revenge,” Elizabeth said.
“At first there might have been that element in it,” Virginia admitted. “Katherine was six months’ pregnant when he left her, and she felt horribly deserted. I didn’t know he was going to be a father until after Clarissa was born. Then I felt I’d betrayed her too, though I hadn’t known anything about it.”
“He said he should have told you, ” Elizabeth said, “but he was very much in love and was afraid of losing you. He said there was never any question of his not supporting Katherine and Clarissa.”‘
“No, I make perfectly good money,” Virginia said. “There’s no question of his supporting them now, if that’s a problem. He doesn’t.”
“He says he’d rather he did,” Elizabeth said.
“He sees Clarissa whenever he likes,”  Katherine explained. “He’s very good with her. One of the reasons I wanted a baby was knowing he’d be a good sort of father.”
“Did you have any reservations about marrying him?”  Elizabeth asked Virginia.
“At the time?  Only that I so very much wanted to,” Virginia said. “There aren’t that many marrying men around for women dentists, unless they’re sponges, of course. It’s flattering when someone is so afraid of losing you he’s willing to do something legal about it. It oughtn’t to be but it is.”
“But you had other reservations later,” Elizabeth said.
“Certainly, his wife and his child.”
“Why did he leave you, Katherine?”
“Because he was afraid of losing her. I suppose he thought he’d have what he needed of me anyway, since I was having his child.”
“Were you still in love with him?” Elizabeth asked.
“I must have been,” Katherine said, “but I couldn’t have been quite so unhappy, so desperate. I was desperate.”
“He’s not difficult to be in love with, after all,”  Virginia said. “He’s a very attractive man.”
“He asked me if I was a lesbian,” Elizabeth said. “l told him I certainly didn’t think so. After all, I was in love with him. He said so had two other women been, in love enough to marry him, but they were both lesbians. And maybe he only attracted lesbians even if they didn’t t know it themselves. He even suggested I should maybe try making love with another woman before I made up my mind.”
There was a pause which neither Katherine nor Virginia at tempted to break.
“Did either of you know. . . before?”
Katherine and Virginia looked at each other. Then they said,
“He’s even afraid he may turn women into lesbians,” Elizabeth said.
Both Virginia and Katherine laughed, but not unkindly.
“Is that possible?” Elizabeth asked.
“Is that one of your reservations?” Katherine asked.
“It seemed crazy,” Elizabeth said, “but…”
Again the two hostesses waited.
“l know this probably sounds very unliberated and old-fashioned and maybe even prejudiced, but I don’t think I could stand being a lesbian, finding out I’m a lesbian; and if there something in him that makes a woman . . . How can either of you stand to be together instead of with him?”
“But you don’t know you’re a lesbian until you fall in love,” Katherine said, “and then it’s quite natural to want to be together with the person you love.”
“What’s happening to me is so peculiar. The more sure I am I’m in love with him, the more obsessively I read everything I can about what it is to be a lesbian. It’s almost as if I had fallen in love with a woman, and that’s absurd.”
“l don’t really think there’s anything peculiar about him,” Katherine said.
“One is just so naturally drawn, so able to identify with another woman,” Virginia said. “When I finally met Katherine what he wanted and needed just seemed too ridiculous’
“But it was you he wanted,” Elizabeth protested.
“At Katherine’s and Clarissa’s expense, and what was I, after all, but just another woman.”
“A liberated woman,” Katherine said.
“Not then, I wasn’t,” Virginia said.
“I didn’t feel naturally drawn to either of you,” Elizabeth protested. “l wasn’t even curious at first. But he is so obsessed with you still, so afraid of being betrayed again, and I thought, I’ve got to help him somehow, reassure him, understand enough to let him know, as you say, that there’s nothing peculiar about him…or me.”
“I’m sure there isn’t,”  Katherine said reassuringly and reached out to take Elizabeth’s hand.
Virginia got up to clear the table.
“Mom!” came the imperious and sleepy voice of Clarissa.
“I’ll go,” Virginia said.
“But I don’t think you mean what I want you to mean,” Elizabeth said.
“Perhaps not,” Katherine admitted.
“He said he never should have left you. It was absolutely wrong; and if he ever did marry again, it would be because he wanted to make that commitment, but what if his next wife found out she didn’t want him, the way Virginia did?”
“I guess anyone takes that risk,” Katherine said.
“Do you think I should marry him?” Elizabeth asked.
Katherine kept Elizabeth’s hand, and her eyes met Elizabeth’s beseeching, but she didn’t answer.
“You do think there’s something wrong with him?”
“No, I honestly don’t. He’s a perfectly nice man. It’s just that I sometimes think that isn’t good enough, not now when there are other options.”
“What other options?”
“You have a job don’t you?”
“I teach at the university, as he does.”
“Then you can support yourself.”
“That’s not always as glamorous as it sounds.”
“Neither is marriage,” Katherine said.
“Is this?” Elizabeth asked, looking around her, just as Virginia came back into the room.
“It’s not nearly as hard as some people try to make it sound.”
“Clarissa wanted to know if her new mother was still here.”
“Oh my,” Elizabeth said.
“Before you came, she wanted to know, if you married her father, would you be another mother and move in here.”
Elizabeth laughed and then said, “Oh, God, that’s just what he wants to know!”
They took their coffee back into the living room.
“It must be marvelous to be a dentist. At least during the day you can keep people from telling you all their troubles,” Elizabeth said.
“That’s not as easy as it looks,” Virginia said.
“He says you’re the best dentist he ever went to. He hates his dentist now.”
“I used to be so glad he wasn’t like so many men who fell in love with their students,” Katherine said.
“Maybe he’d be better off,” Elizabeth said in mock gloom. “He says he isn’t threatened by my having published more than he has. He had two wives and a baby while I was simply getting on with it; but does he mean it? Does he really know?”
“We’re all reading new lines, aren’t we?” Virginia asked.
“But if finally none of us marries them, what will they do?” Elizabeth asked.
“I can hardly imagine that.” Katherine said.
“You can’t imagine what they’ll do?”
“No,  women saying ‘no,’ all of them. We can simply consider ourselves for instance,”  Katherine said.
“Briefly anyway,” Virginia said. “Did you come partly to see if you were at all like us?”
“I suppose so,” Elizabeth said.
“Are you?”
“Well, I’m not surprised by you. . .and very surprised not to be.”
“Are you sorry to have married him?” Virginia asked Katherine.
“I could hardly be. There’s Clarissa, after all, and you. Are you?” she asked in return.
“Not now,” Virginia said, “having been able to repair the damage.”
“And everyone knows,” Elizabeth said, “that you did have the choice.”
“Yes’ Virginia agreed, “there’s that.”
“But I felt I didn’t have any choice,” Katherine said. “That part of it humiliated me”
“Elizabeth is making a distinction.” Virginia said, “between what everyone knows and what each of us knows. I shared your private humiliation, of course. All women must.”
“Why?” Elizabeth demanded.
“Not to believe sufficiently in one’s own value,” Virginia explained.
“But he doesn’t believe sufficiently in his own value either,” Elizabeth said. “He doesn’t even quite believe he’s a man.”
“I never doubted I was a woman,” Katherine said.
“That smug,” Elizabeth said, “because you have a child.”
“So does he,” Katherine replied.
“But he was too immature to deal with it; he says so himself. Don’t you feel at all sorry for him?’
“Yes,” said Katherine.
“Of course,” Virginia agreed.
“He’s been terribly hurt. He’s been damaged,” Elizabeth said.
“Does that make him more or less attractive do you think?” Virginia asked.
“Well, damn it, less, of course,” Elizabeth shouted. “And whose fault is that?”
Neither of the other two women answered.
“He’s not just second, he’s third-hand goods,” Elizabeth said.
“Are women going to begin to care about men’s virginity?” Katherine asked. “How extraordinary!”
“Why did you go into therapy?” Virginia asked.
“l hardly remember,”  Elizabeth said. “I’ve been so caught up with his problems since the beginning. The very first night of group, he said I somehow reminded him of his wives…”
“Perhaps that is why you went,” Katherine suggested.
“You think I’d be crazy to marry him, don’t you?” Elizabeth demanded.
“Why should we?” Virginia asked. “We both did.”
“That’s not a reassuring point,” Elizabeth said.
“You find us unsatisfactory,” Katherine said, in apology.
“Exactly not,” Elizabeth said sadly. “I want someone to advise me. . .to make a mistake. Why should you?”
“Why indeed?” Virginia asked.
They embraced warmly before Elizabeth left.
“Perhaps I might come again?” she asked at the door.
“Of course, Katherine said.
After the door closed, Katherine and Virginia embraced.
“He’d be so much happier, for a while anyway, if he married again,” Katherine said.
“Of course he would,”  Virginia agreed, with some sympathy for him in her voice. “But we couldn’t encourage a perfectly nice woman like Elizabeth…”
“That’s the problem, isn’t it?” Katherine said. “That’s just it.”
“She’ll marry him anyway;” Virginia predicted, “briefly.”
“And have a child?” Katherine asked.
“And fall in love with his next wife,” Virginia went on.
“There really isn’t anything peculiar about him,” Katherine said.
“I’m sorry he doesn’t like his dentist.”
“He should never have married you.”
“No, he shouldn’t,” Virginia agreed. “Then at least I could still be taking care of his teeth.”
Barring that, they went up together to look in on his richly mothered child, sleeping soundly, before they went to their own welcoming bed.













I must admit I spent several frustrating days going over the OCR of this story, hunting down every garbled word and broken line, every comma, apostrophe and quotation mark – but it was most assuredly worth the while to be able to post Jane Rule’s finely crafted short story, sparkling as it does with nuanced insight into women’s minds, and her pitch-perfect ear for the delicacy of women’s conversation.

It was my impression that the conversation itself sounded as if it belonged to an era which predated the women’s movement (the mention of which rather dated the story) by at least a couple of decades. Katherine, Virginia and Elizabeth, with the careful economy and refinement of their speech, sound to me as if they belong in the more formal ‘fifties – or even an earlier time –  rather than the radical ‘seventies, and their dress suggested to me the same sense of propriety. But then I wondered, would a hostess of  the ‘fifties have entertained a dinner guest with food from the freezer?  And what about the absence of cocktails and canapes, which made the period – culinarily at least – indeterminate and difficult to pin down with any degree of certainty.

This was essentially the problem I ran into when attempting to reconcile the ‘movie’ of the story which floated in my head with the actual text.  Despite the ‘progressive’ touches, (Elizabeth’s therapy, Katherine’s school) this stuck in my mind as a ‘fifties story. The only way I could think of to reconcile content and context was to give in and embrace the anachronism, and be faithful to my own imagination – hence, my admittedly frivolous, choice of images for this post!

Rule’s one small slip (if it could even be said to be one) notwithstanding, one cannot but be impressed with how deftly she expresses the gentle and amused, but unmistakable sense of superiority, the faintest denigration camouflaged, but not quite concealed in the word ‘nice’. Rule’s perfect balance of irony, humour and seriousness aptly suited the setting of the story. The personalities and characters of these three women with their similarly old-fashioned names, sense of style and initial marital predisposition, cast them as kindred spirits.

We know that Elizabeth’s fatal evening with these two wholesome and classy paragons of lesbian virtue – intelligent, ethical, self-aware, transparent, reflective and  fearless as they are – is an initiation – an induction as it were into their way of life – a way of life that has already begun to wield its fascination on her readily susceptible mind. It sounds the knell of doom for her forthcoming marriage even before it begins. Distillation is fore-ordained once the elements of the alchemical process have been brought together in the alembic, and so we cannot, for all the world, imagine her settling happily ever after for an ordinary relationship with even the most perfectly nice man in the world.

It is difficult to discern exactly where the note of inevitability is struck, but once we have heard it, it resounds like a persistent chord over the background of conversation. We know that the already sprouted seeds of Elizabeth’s ambivalence have received a thorough watering as she absorbs the implications of the perfect choreography of Katherine and Virginia’s well-ordered lives, ensconced in their chosen niche of unruffled domestic happiness. Elizabeth is uncomfortably aware of their well-meant condescension, their kindly but amused sympathy for the former spouse (referred to here only by a pronoun and to whom Rule refrains from conferring the dignity of a name) who no longer has any personal significance in their lives beyond his services rendered in fathering their child and serving as a stepping stone to their alliance.

Despite her determined struggle to resist it, the inevitability of her own future must have become terribly clear to Elizabeth over the course of the evening. Elizabeth will arrive at her destination in her own way, making her own mistakes and charting her own ambivalent course, but we needn’t fear for her happiness or security, because we know she will land on her feet, and when she does, she will have a couple of discerning and sympathetic allies.

But what about ‘the perfectly nice man?’ Whatever did he do to deserve the terrible marital curse that dogs his every romantic effort? His confidence, already undermined, will end in utter ruin. What is it about him that so sadly and comically pairs him with incipiently lesbian women? We hope for Clarissa’s sake he will not take to drink, but somehow gain an insight into the chemistry of his attractions. Fate seems indifferent to his happiness, so it is entirely up to him to save himself – if indeed such a thing is at all possible.

We hope that in accordance with Katherine’s prescient announcement, his brief marriage to Elizabeth will be happy. We hope Clarissa will have a new little sister, who will be given a suitably old-fashioned name, in honour of a woman writer, as do all the women in her life. I think Rule would have it so, because she must have been thinking of Clarissa, Virginia Woolf ‘s niece, when she picked the names for these two characters. I am also reminded of Katherine Mansfield and Elizabeth Bowen… so perhaps the new addition might be christened ‘Sylvia,’ after Sylvia Townsend Warner, one of my own personal favourite lesbian writers.

That would be as neat a summing up as we could wish for, to follow the rueful, yet oracular pronouncements made by Katherine and Virginia on their way to bed.

















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Renée Vivien, born Pauline Mary Tarn (11 June 1877 – 18 November 1909
















Told by Gesa Karoly

I promised you, my curious little girl, to tell you the true story of Sarolta Andrassy. You knew her,  didn’t you? You remember her black hair with blue and red highlights, and her eyes like a lover’s begging and melancholy.

Sarolta Andrassy lived in the country with her old mother. For neighbours she had the Szecheny family, who had just left Budapest forever. Really, they were a bizarre family! It was easy to mistake Bela Szecheny for a little girl, and his sister, Terka, for a little boy. Curiously enough, Bela possessed all the feminine virtues and Terka, all the masculine faults. Bela’s hair was a copper blond; Terka’s was a livelier, rather reddish blond. The brother and sister strangely resembled each other – and that’s very rare among members of the same family, no matter what they say.

Bela’s mother was not yet resigned to cutting off the beautiful blond curls of the little boy or to exchanging his graceful muslin or velvet skirts for vulgar pants. She coddled him like a little girl. As for Terka, she kept shooting up, like a wild weed . . . She lived outdoors, climbing on the trees, marauding, robbing the kitchen gardens. She was unbearable and at war with the world. She was a child who was neither tender not communicative. Bela, on the other hand, was gentleness itself. He showed his adoration for his mother by making much of her and by caressing her. Terka loved no on€, and no one loved her.

Sarolta came one day to visit the Szecheny family. Her loving eyes in her thin, pale face seemed to be begging. Bela greatly pleased her, and they played together  great deal. Looking wild, Terka prowled around them.When Sarolta spoke to her, she fled.

She could have been pretty, this incomprehensible Terka . . . But she was too tall for her age, too thin, too awkward, too ungainly, whereas Bela was so dainty and so sweet! . . . Several months later, the Szecheny family left Hungary. Bela had an excessively delicate chest, being in general rather frail. On the advice of the doctor, his mother took him to Nice, along with his recalcitrant little sister. Sarolta cried bitterly over losing her playmate.

In her dreams, Sarolta always evoked the too frail and too pretty little boy whom she remembered constantly. And she would say to herself, smiling at the blond fantasy: ‘If I must get married when I’m older, I would like to marry Bela.’

Several years passed – oh, how slowly for the impatient Sarolta! Bela must have reached the age of twenty, and Terka, seventeen. They were still on the Riviera. And Sarolta grieved through the joyless, long years, which were lit up only by the illusion of a dream.

One violet evening, she was dreaming by her window when her mother came to tell her that Bela had returned . . . Sarolta’s heart sang as if it would break. And, the next day, Bela came to see her.

He was the same, and even more charming than before. Sarolta was happy that he had kept this feminine and gentle manner which had so pleased her. He was still the fragile child . . . But now this child possessed an inexpressible grace. Sarolta searched in vain for the cause of this transformation which made him so alluring. His voice was musical and faraway like the echo of the mountains. She admired everything about him, even his stone-grey English suit. And she even admired his
mauve necktie.

Bela contemplated the young woman with different eyes, with eyes strangely beautiful, with eyes that did not resemble the eyes of other men . . . ‘How thin he is!’ observed Sarolta’s mother after he had left. ‘Poor thing, he must still be in delicate health.’ Sarolta did not answer. She closed her eyes in order to again see Bela under her closed eyelids . . . How handsome, handsome, handsome he was! . . .

He returned the next day, and every day after that. He was the Prince Charming who is seen only in the childish pages of fairy tales. She could not look him in the face without feeling ardently and languishingly faint . . . Her face changed according to the expression of the face she loved. Her heart beat according to the rhythm of that other heart. Her unconscious and childish tenderness had become love.

Bela would turn pale as soon as she appeared, diaphanous in her white summer dress. Sometimes he looked at her without speaking, like someone communing with himself in front of a faultless Statue. Sometimes he took her hand . . . His palm was so burning and dry that she thought she was touching the hand of an invalid. Indeed, at those times a little fever would show in Bela’s cheeks.

One day she asked him for some news of the undisciplined Terka.
‘She is still in Nice,’ he answered indifferently. And then they spoke of something else. Sarolta understood that Bela did not love his sister at all. This was not surprising, what is more –  a girl who was so taciturn and wild!

What should come next, came next. A few months later Bela asked to marry her. He had just turned twenty-one.  Sarolta’s mother had no objections to the union

Their betrothal was unreal, as delicate as the white roses that Bela brought each day. Their vows were more fervent than poems: their very souls trembled on their lips. The nuptial dream came to be in the deepest silence.

‘Why,’ Sarolta would ask her fiancé€, ‘are you worthier of being loved than other young men? Why do you have gentle ways that they do not? Where did you learn the divine words that they never say?’

The wedding ceremony took place in absolute privacy. The candles brightened the red highlights in Bela’s blond hair. The incense curled towards him, and the thunder of the organs exalted and glorified him. For the first time since the beginning of the world, the Groom was as beautiful as the Bride.

They left for those blue shores where the desire of lovers runs out of patience. They were seen, a Divine Couple, with the eyelashes of one stroking the eyelids of the other. They were seen, lovingly and chastely intertwined, with her black hair spread over his blond hair . . .

Oh, my curious little girl! Here the story becomes a little  difficult to relate . . . Several months later, the teal Bela Szecheny appeared . . . He was not Prince Charming, alas! He was only a handsome boy, nothing more.

He furiously sought the identity of the young usurper . . . And he learned that the usurper in question was his own sister, Terka.

….Sarolta and Prince Charming have never returned to Hungary. They are hiding in the depths of a Venetian castle or of a Florentine mansion. And sometimes they are seen, as one sees a vision of ideal tenderness, lovingly and chastely intertwined.


Translated by Karla Jay and
Yvonne M. Klein



Who, we wonder, was Gesa Karoly, and who was the curious little girl to whom this little gem of a story was related? The writer would have us believe that legend of Sarolta and her lover went on being retold, and the little girl, who remembered Sarolta, we may fondly imagine, may have been influenced by its hearing, to form her own views and ideas about the possibilities of love, and so not simply accept at face-value the norms embraced and upheld by society at large.

Renée Vivien’s charming tale of lesbian love and marriage is one in a long string going all the way back to Ovid – Iphys and Ianthes, in Metamorphosis,  and Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem  Orlando Furioso, which has the a brother and sister fall in love with the same woman. Though both narratives disappoint (Ariosto’s narrative, degenerates into a heterosexual romance, even though the two women marry each other, and in Ovid’s tale Iphys is transformed into a man) Vivien gives her readers every satisfaction.

Hers is a story told by a lesbian, for lesbians, and happily for us she does not succumb to trite and banal heterosexual anticlimaxes resorted to by precedent (even Shakespeare is guilty here), but sends her lovers off to live in Italy, where we are free to imagine that they in true fairy-tale fashion, revel in each others’ company for the rest of their lives.

I hear a pianissimo echo in Vivien’s language of Oscar Wilde but without his excesses, of Baudelaire, without his decadence and also of Virginia Woolf, without her usual ornately satirical social embellishments; but above all  I hear in Vivien’s writing the sweetness and magic, as well as the dark glimmer of falling in love.

No doubt an argument can be made that the romantic ethereality of her language and its high-art aesthetic confers on it the gloss of dated unreality, but I think that beneath the cultured patina lies the solid core of a complex analysis of gender and sexual orientation, albeit sans the associated component of sexuality. Prince Charming is in fact a stylish fable – a myth –  chronicling a stylised adaptation of gender to fulfil the imperatives of personal individuation.

Though the traits of the opposite sex predominate in the characters of Bela and Terka, Terka’s maleness bears the imprint of  divine virginity, whereas Bela’s femaleness is mere passivity. Terka is in fact a young Diana, withholding herself from trivial social interaction, and purely dedicated to her own wild self.

What sets the sequence of this story in motion? Sarolta loves Bela (meaning ‘white’ in Hungarian, and here perhaps implying ‘pure’) for his girlish nature, and she is aware that a liaison is one which is still within the ambit of what is considered socially sanctioned as a basis for marriage. But this is her first step on the lesbian continuum, when her heart’s intimations reveal to her that it is a certain quality –  a particular nature – a singular constellation of characteristics that draw her, and this attachment, though nascent and diffuse, forms the basis of her enduing romantic dream.

But I question if  Bela’s muslin skirts, delicate health and a general tendency to be ‘sweet’, though they may suffice to inspire Sarolta’s  childish love, go beyond being merely social traits? For in this case they do not seem to me to sink their taproot into the substratum of human nature itself. Not so in the case of Terka. Her wild coltishness, and her vital intensity –  the active reality of her nature –  does not permit the trivial and social interactions which convention approves. Why does she run away when addressed by Sarolta? Could it be that she cannot bear the intensity of her feelings for Sarolta? She is untouchable and most of all untouched. For her the potency of touch is not something to be squandered in idle caresses.  Neither is she sullied by any prior loves, not even the maternal, and certainly not the fraternal – and this is the purity Vivien so values, in her emphasis on ‘chasteness’. It is this chasteness, this virginal quality and its underlying power is what makes Terka’s love pure and exclusive. She is after all, the one who initiates the relationship with Sarolta, while valetudinarian Bela lacks the acumen to take the next logical step in Sarolta’s direction.

Vivien makes it undeniably clear that it was what was female in Bela that inspired Sarolta’s early affection. Bela was effete and epicene and these were the qualities that appealed to Sarolta. His nerveless languor and passive nature devoid of masculine traits – in fact his effeminacy  –  is what makes Bela acceptable to her. Vivien relates a myth of gender ambivalence, describing a subtle process which begins with the unreal and concludes with the real. It is a sacrament in which separate and disparate splinters of gender components coalesce in Terka and transform to comprise a whole, which then concludes in the Hierosgamos  – the sacred marriage.

Bela himself is hidden behind the veil of the personality he projectes, and which Sarolta percieves.  When she again sees  Terka in the guise of Bela, after the long separation in all his travested beauty, she falls truly in love. She knows intuitively this is a ‘different’ kind of love. She senses the difference, though she finds it inexplicable, but the shift of her affections from childish love to ardour and from Bela to ‘Terka as Bela’ and from girlish boy to boyish girl, is accomplished in one swift gliding movement. It resembles a bloodless revolution, when a usurper displaces a former monarch and seizes the throne without the least evidence of conflict. Neither do we sense in Sarolta any trace of an emotional disconnect.

The alchemical progression in Sarolta’s mind of a dawning realisation from languid to intense, from Bela to Terka seems almost imperceptible. The process is so smooth, so deftly accomplished, it is almost invisible as a progression in the object of  Sarolta’s affections. Sarolta’s attachment begins with a male, Bela, in whom feminine traits predominate –  Terka, in whom the masculine traits predominate remains, present, but in the distance, unapproachable and unapproaching.

Then comes the vital hiatus  – the quiescence in which Terka enters the cocoon of her metamorphosis. When she reappears she has achieved the perfect balance of integrated feminine and masculine traits – a fusion of the requisite romantic and social qualities which form the fabric of Sarolta’s Prince Charming.  And so, one wonders if for Terka, early gender ambivalence was transformed into a mature personality largely in relation to Sarolta, and if Terka’s motivation in creating her adult self was in order to be desired by Sarolta…. and to go even a step further, if Terka’s transformation into ‘Prince Charming was in fact a wrought by  the alchemy of Sarolta’s desire…

But it is shimmering awareness that makes the wedding secret, and silent, and the love sacrosanct. The mere touching of hands is fevered, and  between Terka and Sarolta there is none of the casualness in it of Bela’s maternal caresses. Farouche Terka is transformed in young adulthood into a Prince Charming of hidden depths. Bela remains a feeble, social creature, prodded to action only when concerns about his social identity compel him.

Vivien’s story boldly celebrates the strange and ineffable nature of lesbian love when it is first felt, as a force that surfaces mysteriously, asserts itself and makes itself felt in ways that cannot be explained or understood: as something which demands to be acknowledged and honoured, to the extent that it subverts and usurps and adapts to its own necessity the heterosexual prerogative of marriage.

The appearance of  femininity and masculinity – even maleness and femaleness –  is shown to be deceptive and misleading; a mere mask and masquerade, which makes  impersonation of the opposite sex (and not mere transvestism)  a valid and genuine act. It is not merely a use of sartorial deception, but something undertaken in order to accomplish a serious end. With her ‘Prince Charming’ Vivien creates a space where same-sex love can be conceived of as something which can – and should –  flourish undisturbed and unhindered. This idea seems particularly valuable at a time when the self-knowledge of a woman’s sexual and affectional orientation was not a simple given – not an external endowment as perhaps it is in our own time  –  but something to be arrived at intuitively, empirically and with conviction, in contravention of accepted  social norms.

In Vivien’s charmingly extravagant myth, the stock trope of ‘Prince Charming’ is stood on its head. It is appropriated and made to serve a subversive purpose. It validates same-sex relationships between women, and recognises  the importance of personal as well as social imperatives for lesbians, and the claim to a socially recognised pair bond such as marriage, is something that women might wish to claim for themselves and their female partners.

And so we are given an unambiguously happy ending to a thoroughly romantic escapade – a lesbian fairy-tale in which girl gets girl.

Vivien lived most of her adult life in the Paris of the ‘Belle Époque’, in the company many brilliant literary lesbians – she was  the lover of Natalie Clifford Barney, the neighbour of Collette and she knew Djuna Barnes and many other brilliant women who frequented Barney’s salon. She chose for herself a life far removed from the rigid and limiting confines of domesticity, heterosexual marriage, and the burden of childbearing and child-raising, and had several intense love affairs, relationships and liaisons with women. Fortunately for her, she lived in a time which pre-dated, and was therefore unpolluted by Freud’s malignant and pernicious theorising. She was free to think for herself in ways that most of her female contemporaries outside of her charmed circle could not.

Although Vivien became the heiress of a very large fortune at a very early age, wealth did not bring much happiness with it. Vivien’s mother attempted – unsuccessfully –  to claim a share of the inheritance by having her daughter declared insane. Vivien’s personal difficulties – anorexia, drug, and alcohol abuse exacerbated by a weak constitution, did not detract from her awareness and intense exploration of  the possibilities of passionate love between women, something she expressed much more explicitly and emphatically in her poetry than her prose.

Permanently bereft by the death of her first love, Violet Shillitoe, (in 1901 at the age of 24) Vivien slipped into a steep physical and emotional decline. Her grief was probably exacerbated by guilt, since she had begun an affair with Natalie Clifford Barney shortly before Violet’s death. Violet’s body, which had been buried in France, was exhumed by her father and shipped back to England for reburial in 1904, leaving behind an empty grave in the cemetery of Saint Germain en Laye in Passey. It is  interesting to speculate what impact this morbid event may have had on Vivien, who was already obsessed with death. With the windows of  her apartment nailed shut, and living a reclusive life in her dark, incense-scented rooms, she continued to compose feverishly impassioned poetry, writing obsessively to the very end of her life in November of 1909.

Not very much of Vivien’s original work (written in French,) has been translated into English, which seems to be the reason it is not well-known to English readers. Her poetry, defiantly and uncompromisingly Sapphic, did not catch on in France, though the French could hardly have found its content to be more shocking than the decadent poetry of the second half of the nineteenth century (consider Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Louys). Perhaps the fact that it was written by a woman may have been more than bourgeois sensibilities of the notoriously sexist French of that era could tolerate.

Despite her short and tragic life, (there was at least one attempt at suicide) and the fact that her poetry was never really ‘in style’ the mere fact that Vivien wrote more openly and unapologetically about lesbian love than would be attempted for another seventy years and more, makes her an important figure to us. I am certain that had she written and been published in English and had those publications survived unscathed by censorship, our history as lesbians would have unfolded along a very different trajectory.  A voice in the wilderness is still a voice, and had hers been heard it might have reached the ears of those who most needed to hear its affirmation. Instead there was only the occasional murmur until Radclyffe Hall published  her 1928  novel The Well of Loneliness  –  which was in in fact more of a reasoned plea for understanding and acceptance for ‘inverts’ rather than any confident claim.

So are left, as is usual in such cases when brilliance and bad luck collide, with a sense of  satisfaction tinged with regret, wishing that Vivien’s life could have been as happy, and had as happy an ending as that of Sarolta and Terka in this story.

A week ago, this June 11th was the 135th anniversary of her birth, so Happy Birthday, Renée Vivien – we still remember you, fondly and well.



Le Prince Charmant

Conté par Gesa Karoly.

Je vous ai promis, ô petite curieuse, de vous conter l’histoire véritable de Saroltâ Andrassy. Vous l’avez connue, n’est-ce pas?  Vous vous souvenez de ses cheveux noirs, aux reflets bleus et roux, et de ses yeux d’amoureuse, suppliants et mélancoliques.

Saroltâ Andrassy vivait à la campagne avec sa vieille mère. Elles avaient pour voisins les Szécheny, qui venaient de quitter définitivement Buda-Pesth. Une bizarre famille, en vérité ! On aurait pu prendre Bêla Szécheny pour une petite fille, et sa sœur Terka pour un jeune garçon. Chose curieuse, Bêla possédait toutes les vertus féminines et Terka tous les défauts masculins. Les cheveux de Bêla étaient d’un blond vert, ceux de Terka, plus vivants, d’un blond rose. Le frère et la sœur se ressemblaient étrangement, — cela est très rare entre gens de la même famille, quoi qu’on en dise.

La mère de Bêla ne se résignait pas encore à couper les belles boucles blondes du petit garçon et à échanger ses gracieuses jupes de mousseline ou de velours contre une vulgaire culotte. Elle le choyait comme une fillette. Quant à Terka, elle poussait à sa guise, pareille à une herbe sauvage… Elle vivait au grand air, grimpant sur les arbres, maraudant, pillant les jardins potagers, insupportable et en guerre avec tout le monde. C’était une enfant sans tendresse et sans expansion. Bêla, au contraire, était la douceur même. Son adoration pour sa mère se manifestait par des câlineries et des caresses incessantes. Terka n’aimait personne et personne ne l’aimait.

Saroltâ vint un jour chez les Szécheny. Ses yeux d’amoureuse imploraient, dans son mince visage pâle. Béla lui plut beaucoup et ils jouèrent longtemps ensemble. Terka rôdait autour d’eux, d’un air farouche. Lorsque Saroltâ lui adressa la parole, elle s’enfuit.

Elle aurait été jolie, cette incompréhensible Terka… Mais elle était trop longue pour son âge, trop maigre, trop gauche, trop dégingandée. Tandis que Béla était si mignon et si doux !…

Les Szécheny quittèrent la Hongrie quelques mois plus tard. Saroltâ pleura amèrement son compagnon de jeux. Sur l’avis du médecin, sa mère l’avait emmené à Nice, ainsi que sa récalcitrante petite sœur. Béla avait la poitrine délicate à l’excès. Il était, d’ailleurs, peu robuste.

À travers ses rêves, Saroltâ évoquait toujours l’enfant trop frêle et trop joli dont le souvenir persistait en elle. Et elle se disait, en souriant à l’image blonde :

« Si je dois me marier plus tard, je voudrais épouser Béla. »

Plusieurs années se passèrent, — oh ! combien lentement pour l’impatiente Saroltâ ! Béla devait avoir atteint vingt ans, et Terka dix-sept. Ils étaient toujours sur la Riviera. Et Saroltâ se désolait de ces années sans joie, éclairées seulement par l’illusion d’un songe.

Elle rêvait à sa fenêtre, par un soir violet, lorsque sa mère vint lui dire que Béla était revenu…

Le cœur de Saroltâ chantait à se briser. Et, le lendemain, Béla vint vers elle.

Il était le même, et pourtant bien plus charmant qu’autrefois. Saroltâ fut heureuse qu’il eût gardé cet air efféminé et doux qui lui avait tant plu. C’était toujours l’enfant fragile… Mais cet enfant possédait aujourd’hui une grâce inexprimable. Saroltâ chercha en vain la cause de cette transformation qui le rendait si attirant. Sa voix était musicale et lointaine, ainsi qu’un écho des montagnes. Elle admira tout de lui, jusqu’à son complet anglais, d’un gris de pierres, et jusqu’à sa cravate mauve.

Béla contemplait la jeune fille de ses yeux changés, de ses yeux étrangement beaux, de ses yeux qui ne ressemblaient pas aux yeux des autres hommes…

« Qu’il est donc mince ! » observa la mère de Saroltâ, après son départ. « Il doit être encore d’une santé bien délicate, ce pauvre petit. »

Saroltâ ne répondit point. Elle ferma les yeux afin de revoir Béla sous ses paupières closes… Comme il était joli, joli, joli !…

Il revint le lendemain, et tous les jours. C’était le Prince Charmant qui ne se révèle qu’à travers les pages enfantines des contes de fées. Elle ne pouvait le regarder en face sans défaillir ardemment, languissamment… Son visage variait selon l’expression du visage désiré. Son cœur battait selon le rythme de cet autre cœur. L’inconsciente et puérile tendresse était devenue de l’amour.

Béla pâlissait dès qu’elle entrait, diaphane en sa blanche robe d’été. Il la regardait parfois, sans parler, comme quelqu’un qui se recueille devant une Statue sans défaut. Parfois il lui prenait la main… Elle croyait toucher une main de malade, tant la paume en était brûlante et sèche. Un peu de fièvre montait alors jusqu’aux pommettes de Béla.

Elle lui demanda un jour des nouvelles de Terka l’indisciplinée.

« Elle est toujours à Nice, » répondit-il négligemment. Et l’on parla d’autre chose. Saroltâ comprit que Béla n’aimait point sa sœur. Ce n’était pas étonnant, au surplus. Une enfant si taciturne et si farouche !

Ce qui devait arriver arriva. Béla la demanda en mariage quelques mois plus tard. Il entrait dans sa vingt et unième année. La mère de Saroltâ ne s’opposa point à l’union.

Ce furent d’irréelles fiançailles, délicates à l’égal des roses blanches que Béla apportait chaque jour. Ce furent des aveux plus fervents que des poèmes, et des frissons d’âme sur les lèvres. Au profond des silences, passait le rêve nuptial.

« Pourquoi, » disait Saroltâ à son fiancé, « es-tu plus digne d’être aimé que les autres jeunes hommes ? Pourquoi as-tu des douceurs qu’ils ignorent ? Où donc as-tu appris les parôles divines qu’ils ne prononcent jamais ? »

La cérémonie eut lieu dans une intimité absolue. Les cierges avivaient les lueurs roses de la blonde chevelure de Béla. L’encens fumait vers lui, et le tonnerre des orgues l’exaltait et le glorifiait. Pour la première fois, depuis le commencement du monde, l’Époux fut aussi beau que l’Épouse.

Ils partirent vers les rives bleues où s’exaspère le désir des amants. On les vit, Couple Divin, les cils de l’un frôlant les paupières de l’autre. On les vit, amoureusement et chastement enlacés, les cheveux noirs de l’Amante répandus sur les blonds cheveux de l’Amant…

Mais voici, ô petite curieuse ! où l’histoire devient un peu difficile a raconter… Quelques mois plus tard, le véritable Béla Szécheny apparut… Ce n’était pas le Prince Charmant. Hélas ! Ce n’était qu’un joli garçon, sans plus.

Il rechercha furieusement la personnalité du jeune usurpateur… Et il apprit que l’usurpateur en question était sa sœur Terka.

… Saroltâ et le Prince Charmant ne sont plus revenus en Hongrie. Ils se cachent au fond d’un palais vénitien ou d’une maison florentine. Et parfois on les rencontre, tels qu’une vision de tendresse idéale, amoureusement et chastement enlacés.






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In lieu of a picture of D. van der Wert, this image of a young Burgher circa 1944.




















I remember pushing my head and upper body as far out of the train window as I could. My grandfather would tell me to not look in the direction of the engine. If you looked that way, sooner or later a rock-hard piece of coal dust would come to lodge itself in the softness of your eye. I didn’t pull my head back even when we reached a tunnel with its scary jagged sides mere feet away from the window, and the hot coal-scented gloom would enter my nose, and my eyes, no matter how wide I opened them could take in nothing but the black velvet darkness.  When the inevitable cinder found its random lodgement, my grandfather would remove it by pushing my lower lid under the upper one, and allowing my lashes to remove the grit.

My grandfather brought along sandwiches wrapped in newspaper. Because we always took the early train he made them early in the morning, before the sun came up, as soon as the bread man made his delivery.  From my couch next to the dining room I could hear my grandfather’s  wooden slippers as he made his way up and down the stairs into the kitchen, to bring up the beef curry left over from the last night’s dinner. Thick red spicy sauce clung to the bits of beef and stuck to the butter between the slices of bread with their curved black crusts. I remember the scent rising out of the grease dotted newspaper, and the fragrance of those sandwiches.

This grandfather, who had been an engineer of the Ceylon Government Railway, spent many years driving this very train, an old steam engine called ‘The High-Country Princess.’ He knew all the stations by heart, and the places where the train narrowly skirted a deep precipice. He would point out all the important landmarks to me: Places remembered for being the lookout posts for robbers and bandits and partisans who tried desperately and by ambush to forestall the British conquest of the Kandyan Kingdom, the last to fall, (in 1815) by rolling rocks down the steep hillsides.  These places had Sinhalese names which meant ‘Getting out Swords’ and ‘North-forest-hill,’ the hide-out where Saradiel, the Robin Hood of Ceylon, had his cave. There was Bible Rock, Sensation Rock, Lion’s Mouth, Dawson’s Tower, and the many others I can still vividly remember. We would drink the sweet milky tea, brought around by a waiter in the heavy restaurant cups stamped with a crest and letters of the Ceylon Government Railway, and eat fried snacks from the vendors who hawked them at the train stations. I could forget for a little while that I was going back to boarding school, for another agonizing three months of wrenching loneliness and sadness, far away from anyone I loved or who loved me, not that there were too many of those.

But now my school days were over. My widowed grandmother from the other side of the family, whom I called Nanna, lived in Colombo, and now I was living with her. Nanna’s house was at the end of a lane full of deep ruts, which would get deeper and more treacherous with each monsoon season. I had been staying here since I finished school. Nanna was very respectable, and proud of her cabinet of wine glasses and knick-knacks and fading studio photographs of long-dead, formally-dressed family members. Everything  in the old house was neat and tidy, and nothing gathered dust as it did in my grandfather’s  Kandy home, where no book was ever thrown out, and snake-skins and antlers hung on the walls together with old photographs of hunting dogs and prints like ‘The Gleaners,’ and one in particular, which caused me great anguish called ‘The Last of the Garrison.’ This was an engraving of an old hound lying dead over the threshold of a shelled-out doorway, with a broken musket by his head.

But it wasn’t too bad here. There were diversions –  a piano in the living room which had only a couple of dumb notes – and a young girl who lived in the neighbouring  house around the back of ours, who filled the late afternoons with the wild romantic  music of her piano. During the worst heat which came just before the evening, I would sit on the steps of the algae-covered servants’ bathroom behind the garage and listen to her playing, and my mind would float as far away as the desperate notes could take me.

Nanna’s youngest son, my uncle Walter kept birds in a huge cage on the verandah. They were finches that chirped and fluttered all day, and built their nests in little boxes near the top of the cage, and cleaned their beaks on cuttlefish bones. Still unmarried in his forties, he stayed in the front room, the only one with a sink. My grandmother had the next room, which she shared with me. The two rooms next to them were occupied with boarders: a young married couple who couldn’t yet afford their own home, and a medical student who had the last room next to the bathroom and lavatory. It was clear to me that the boarders all had futures. I did not.

My stomach was still jumpy from this morning. I felt sick and lightheaded and my mouth remained stubbornly dry.  I couldn’t quite believe that I had actually pulled off this stunt. Despite the weeks of planning, when it actually came to doing it, things took on their own momentum.  It was fairly easy to stick to my decision in the dark early morning, as I felt around for the heavy drawer pull of the bottom shelf of Nanna’s old almirah. Neatly folded in the drawer and smelling of mothballs, I knew I would find the two starched and ironed suits of clothes she had kept there for the last twenty years since Grandpapa’s death. I knew I would find a pale blue long sleeved shirt, only a little frayed at the collar, placed on top of a pair of khaki shorts and a cotton vest with short sleeves, and a pair of white cotton socks. There was also a second set of clothes  –  a white shirt and a pair of eggshell coloured cotton longs – and a matching cotton coat with a white handkerchief folded in the pocket. On the top of coat was a blue and brown striped tie and an old  ‘Peacock’ brand cigarette box that contained the yellowing removable celluloid trouser studs that went with both pairs of trousers.

I took the studs and put the box back. Everything smelled coldly of camphor and old tobacco, because together with the clothes, and my grandfathers brush and comb and a tassel from his coffin, my grandmother had stored Grandpapa’s pipe.  I hesitated before coming to a decision: Even though everyone in my family including my aunt Lennie, my father’s older sister, had the same height and build right down to the skinny legs and flat backsides. I didn’t want to chance it with the longs, in case they weren’t exactly the right length.  I knew the shorts would do fine. Even if they didn’t exactly fit, it wouldn’t matter. There was no required length of planters’ shorts. They could be anywhere from an inch to three inches above the knee: But I took both shirts and the vest.

The morning was cold, and grew colder as I bathed in the servants’ bathroom around the back of the house shivering as I poured the buckets of  night-cooled water over my head as quietly as I could.  It had begun to drizzle. Using my grandmother’s sewing scissors and the small piece of mirror used by the cook for shaving, I began with little snips to transform my head of wet hair.  I carefully felt around my head, and trimmed up the back by feel. Then I did the front and sides, stopping every few minutes to wipe the raindrops off the glass. I tried to leave a hint of sideburns in the front.  The face that looked back at me from the dark surface was uncertain. It would do.  When I shut the tall iron gate behind me the garden was still and quiet. My footsteps made no sound in the damp sand, and the birds on the veranda were still asleep, with the canvas cover drawn down over the front of their cage. I wished I still had my old sweater.  Only one house on the lane had a lighted window; the rest were dark, and opaque, their occupants still asleep. Soon I was standing at the bus-stop in the quiet street.  The drizzle had made the blue shirt a little crumpled and spotted with rain drops, but the clothes seemed to belong to me, and I thought I seemed quite presentable.  The bus ride to Fort cost ten cents.

Taking care to avoid the puddles and to keep my shoes unspotted, I walked the short distance to the train station, which was crowded. The sun was coming up.  When I gave the man in the ticket booth my money he barely looked up at me.  “Where to Sir”?  –  “One third class to Kandy”. People milled around the station even though the Kandy train would not arrive for some time yet. They walked around with their dripping umbrellas, or sat on the benches or on their suitcases if they had them.  Conversations in three languages swirled around in the watery air and settled like a foggy covering around my ears. I counted out my loose change and bought three ‘Three Roses’ brand unfiltered cigarettes, a couple of toffees and a box of ‘Elephant Brand’ matches from a vendor.   I would rather have that than a snack, and it was wonderful to smoke in the open. When the train pulled in, I grabbed a door handle of the first third class compartments to pass me, and ran along while holding on to it, and jumped in.  A man jumped in close beside me, brushing my shoulder as we entered the compartment, and we each claimed a window seat diagonally across from each other.

So this was it. This was the something I had told myself I had to do, suddenly the cord that had wound itself around my chest and stomach during the last few days seemed to loosen, and I began to hear myself breathing.  More people entered the compartment, a man with a little girl in a red dress and a pink ribbon in her braid sat next to me, and a genteel old burgher couple in front of me. Unusually, the compartment did not fill up. On the other side of the aisle sat a Sinhalese gentleman with a tortoise shell comb in his hair, and from the snatches of conversation I overheard I guessed he was traveling with his son and daughter-in-law. Across from them and next to the young man who jumped into the train with me, sat an elderly Sinhalese lady dignified in her white sari, and a silver clasp pinning it to her blouse where it covered her shoulder. There were no standing passengers, and  even a couple of empty seats. The whistle blew, the green flag waved and the train pulled out and soon the moist, morning, smoke-mixed air began to rush past the open window.

She got in at Maradana, which was the next station.  The train now stopped for nearly fifteen minutes was filling up, but the seat across from mine still had only two occupants: The very proper old burgher gentleman reading his damp copy of ‘The Daily News,’ and his white-haired, comfortable-looking wife who smelled faintly of 4711 and smiled as she crocheted blue glass beads onto the lace border of a small white doily. We all looked up when she stepped into the compartment. The old man sized up the situation: A young burgher girl traveling alone: He folded his newspaper and moved away from his  window seat and took the aisle seat next to his wife. “You can sit here, I don’t like the wind.”  He said.  She thanked him and  took the seat directly in front of me. I smoked my second cigarette right down to where it burned my fingers, and threw the butt out of the window.  The whistle blew, the guard waved his green flag, and again the train slowly pulled out of the platform with many metallic groans and shrieks. I looked at the scraps of refuse and paper swirling away from the tracks and fervently hoped that I could leave my dismal prospects to fade away with them into the distance separating me from Colombo.

We were stopped for a long time at Ragama. The small girl sitting next to me was singing a little ditty that echoed the sound of train:“ For the up-country princess, pairs and pairs of silk umbrellas….”  She smiled shyly  at me when I looked at her, so I reached into my pocket and gave her the toffees. I wished I had brought a book. The old lady smiled when she caught me looking at her. Leaning across the space between us, and cupping her hand next to her cheek in order to be heard above the rattle of the engine, began to speak to me.

“Where are you going?”

“To Kandy.”

“Do you live there? What is your name?”

“I’m from Colombo, but I am going to visit my aunt in “Katukelle.” My hands turned clammy: I hadn’t yet thought of a name.

“Where in Colombo do you live?”

“In Dehiwela – before the bridge – 47th Lane.”

“Son, I didn’t catch your name.”

“Daniel Greve,” I said – using my grandfather’s first name.

“Oh – I knew some Greves – Sam,”  she said, tapping the old man’s arm, “Don’t you remember the Greves?  Before he died so suddenly I think old Mr. Greve used to work for an insurance  office in Fort –”

Not waiting for an answer she turned to me again:

“My daughter went to school with their daughter Lenore Greves – at  Methodist College.”

“That is my Aunt Lennie.”

“Greve worked at The Great Eastern Life Insurance office” the old gentleman said, but his wife did not appear to hear him.

“Oh how nice! She was such a nice girl!”  Now her face was beaming.

“That’s whom I am going to see.”

“When you see her tell her that Connie Martyns sent her regards.  My daughter’s name was Francine, but now her surname is Vantwest.”

“Tell her go come and visit Sam and me, we live on the main road next to the Girls’ High School. Its the house with the Kohomba tree in front – you can’t miss it.”

“All right Aunty, I will do that.”

I was anxious to end the conversation. I had not counted on conversation, and could hear my voice becoming suspiciously


uneven under the tension. Turning my body away from the old lady and towards the old man who was now nodding drowsily as his head bobbed to the rhythm of the train, I asked to borrow the newspaper. Before I raised it to hide behind and gratefully shield my stinging ears, I saw his pale hands come to rest in his lap against the soft cotton fabric of his loose trousers.

The train got stuck on the track for an hour and a half a little before we reached Polgahawela. Several of the passengers, the ones who were probably close to their final destinations, got off the train.  When the Sinhalese gentleman rose to his feet his son handed him a rolled up umbrella to use as a cane, and the daughter-in-law followed them carrying a suitcase.  They exited through the door on my side of the compartment, which I held open for them. The young man helped his father and then his wife with the big step down onto the rough stones beside the track, and when soon thereafter the man sitting next to me climbed down the steps, I handed the little girl down to him. All five began to walk towards the station, perhaps to catch a goods train later on in the day or maybe to take a bus. They all had a purpose, or so it seemed to me.  The train continued, and as it   pulled into Labugolla station, the old Sinhalese lady carefully prepared a small chew of betel and placed it in her mouth. She rearranged the newspaper-wrapped packages in her straw bag and walked across to the door. Softly she said,  “May you attain merit Sir” when I handed her bag to her on the platform.

We were now in the mountains, and the locomotive was straining to climb the steep gradient of the tracks. Mrs. Martyns set her crocheting aside and unwrapped a newspaper package and produced sandwiches. As I handed back “The Daily News” to Mr. Martyns’s I felt the  smooth papery touch of his hand. He took the paper and began to read the last page.

“Old Henry Toussaint has died,” He said to his wife as she handed him a sandwich. She handed me one as well, and I took it gratefully. I hadn’t expected to be hungry.  “Thank you, Aunty, Corned beef  – how nice!”

She demurred at the same offer. “Eat a little bit child, we won’t always get this kind of food now that the war is over.”

The old man was holding his sandwich in one hand still looking at the last page of the newspaper.  He cleared his throat slowly.

“Do you remember Henry? He used to work in the mercantile building with Fred.”

“Of course I remember Henry.”  She nodded her head and raised her eyebrows while brushing the crumbs from her dress.

“He used to visit our house in Kolpetty and bring us guavas from his garden. I can’t believe he is dead.  How did he die? How old was he?”

“Probably old age.  It says here he went in his sleep. Eighty-three I think.”

“Can’t be that old!”

“Yes. That old. Now we are all old. That was before the first war, when you knew him.”

“What was his wife’s name?  Do you remember?”

Thoughtfully he raised his eyes to the soot-stained roof of the carriage. His shirt collar slid down his skinny neck, and he lifted a blue-veined hand to slowly stroke his chin.

“Eunice Decker I think. Her people came from Matale.”

Mrs. Martyns picked up her doily. “We must send a telegram when we reach home.”

But Mr. Martyns was looking out the window and appeared not to hear her. The train lurched to a start, and we were off again.The conversation kept winding around, easy but persistent. I should have known something like this would happen. All the vines and tendrils of the burger community were intricately intertwined.  If you ran into a fellow burgher, the chances were that he or she would keep asking questions, like a person anxious to solve a puzzle, until the thread was caught which connected  you to someone already known. She was looking out the window at the mountains beyond the border of green along side the tracks. Her face was relaxed and  she seemed to be lost in thought. Her slightly waving brown hair was parted on the left and held firmly in a clip, away from her forehead.

I continued to watch her secretly in the dull yellow flickering light that bathed the compartment. Then we entered the Mirigama tunnel, one of the nine or ten pitch black holes  basted through the rock along our 79 mile route.  When a piece of grit flew into her eye she took out a white handkerchief and carefully used a corner of it to clean it. She dabbed the tears running down her cheeks and looked down at her lap as if she was carefully inspecting the yellow and pink rose print with green sprigs of her dress. Either that or she was carefully looking past them to my feet, which stuck out on the floor between us. I had shined my pair of brown shoes to a high lustre, but the loose cotton socks had sagged shamefully around my ankles. I was suddenly glad for the soft but visible covering of hair on my shins and calves.  I wished I had had a clean white handkerchief.

At Rambukkana we were delayed for another half hour while a second engine was added to the train for the big climb we would have to make into the mountains. Soon we were stalwartly taking the treacherous the curves, but I could hear the engines pushing and straining, and remnants of the large gusts of grey smoke they exhaled overwhelmed the white steam and came streaming past my window.  I wondered, what if there was a rock-fall and what if the train derailed on one of the passes – but I told myself that wasn’t likely, and it was only just another appearance of all my other fears in a new disguise.

When we reached Kadugannawa the Martyns got up to leave. I pulled out one suitcase from under my seat, and reached over her to take the other down from the luggage rack. For a moment my arm was stretched over her, and it seemed as if she gave a quick upward glance, but I couldn’t tell. When I looked at my elbow I could see the sooty double tracks smeared from the window.  Maybe that’s what she was looking at.   I stepped onto the platform with the old couple to say goodbye. Mrs. Martyns was holding Mr. Martyns’ arm.  A porter had already grabbed their bags and was racing ahead towards the other end of the platform. With his free hand the old man reached up and stroked my head.

“You are a good boy,” He said.

“Don’t forget to tell your aunty about me, ” She said.

Burgher siblings

I felt lost when I climbed back into the train. The sound of the train may as well have been a silence for the sense of emptiness that followed me. I felt the worlds within worlds within worlds, and  each of those worlds was changing faster than the other, and I was in the midst of them all. I couldn’t bear to look in front of me at the two vacant spaces: such slow going. The newspaper was gone. I had nothing.  My neck was aching with nowhere to look except outside the window. In the opposite corner the young man smoked his cigarette with fierce dedication, inhaling and re-inhaling each thick plume of blue smoke which rushed out from his mouth.  I wondered where he was going and when he would get off the train. I felt the silence surge and pulse over the monotony of the train.

“I went to Methodist too.” She was talking to me.


“Yes. Those old people were really nice. I think the old lady was a Miss Pietersz. I’m related to the Pieterszs on my mother’s side.” She moved her hand away from the window-sill and moved the hair away from her cheek. She had large hands.

“Then you must be from Kandy.”

“Not really. My dad’s family was originally from Peradeniya, and he used to teach Chemistry at the university, but we moved to Maradana  after my mother died. Our family home is in Peradeniya, so we moved back there last year, but before that I went to school in Colombo.”

She smoothed her skirt, which was not in any way crumpled, over her knees.  While she was speaking I managed a couple of times to look directly at her face. Her expression was serious but friendly. Then she was smiling slightly, and I could see that her teeth were white and even, except for one on the right side, which slightly overlapped the tooth beside it.  That was probably when I began to think she was really beautiful.

I couldn’t help wondering about her  – her life, her father, her dead mother,  her home. I tried to make a quick calculus of which and what threads could possibly connect the Greve’s to the Pietersz’s, and from thence to her. Inside my head I could see the names and the tangle of lines connecting them, but the lines and letters kept getting separated and reconnected in ways that made my thoughts stutter and my mouth turn dry again.

Why was it this way? Why couldn’t I ever find a single way in which to think my way clearly into a moment or two of happiness.  It was cruel that I couldn’t. Irresoluteness was thoroughly dissolved into my bloodstream, already thinned by the blood that had come down to me through generations of clerks and civil servants.  Of course that had skipped a generation, but it must have resurfaced in me.  I was no Daniel. Life with all its possibilities and impossibilities frightened and dismayed me. The girl frightened me as only something filled with careless and unconscious beauty could. I looked at her grey eyes and her smooth skin and I knew now that she would change my life. The waiter with his tray of rattling teacups was making his careful way between the compartments.  I wished I could have bought her a cup of tea.

Back at the house on 47th lane they would have afternoon tea without me.  I wondered if my Nanna would worry a little as she filled the cups on the table in the back verandah, opening the meat safe with one of the keys on her key chain to get the can of condensed milk.  The chickens in the back yard would be clucking and gathering below the window ledge, waiting for their own tea-time snack of the handfuls of paddy my grandmother kept in an old pillow case and would throw to them out the window.  She may or may not have discovered that my suitcase was missing, together with a few of my clothes and the few sad things she had saved to remember Grandpapa’s life, a life so uneventful, until that morning in May, when dressed and ready to go to work, he suddenly dropped dead of what my grandmother referred to as “a burst blood vessel.” That was a story she repeated from time to time, about her dear good husband, but I had also heard her allude, though never directly, to the black moods that would overtake him, when he would refuse to eat, or go to the office, or talk to anyone for days on end.

I hadn’t taken any money from my Nanna’s clay till which stood on the bureau in her bedroom. I did take out two Rupees from my own smaller till, being careful to leave enough coins so that my withdrawal would not be noticed or discovered.  I didn’t own anything of value,  but last week I had sold some of my clothes including the old blue sweater I had outgrown for to the bottle-man for seven rupees.  Though we were not poor by the standards of the time, and very respectable, cash money was scarce.  As old as I was, Nanna would only give me a Rupee on special days like birthdays, Easter and Christmas, but uncle Walter would give me two Rupees from the envelope of crisp new bank notes he kept for just such occasions.  When I looked up from my welter of thoughts the waiter had long since passed us and was moving down the aisle of the train and out of sight.

“What are you going to do in Kandy?” She was straightening the pleats in her skirt. What was the use of speaking? But I made myself answer.

“I’m going to see if I can get a job.”

“What kind of job?” She was frowning now, and interested. I heard my voice answering.

“I don’t know – I could get a job in the an office – or the Kutcherry maybe. I matriculated with high marks, and I know some short-hand and typing, and my uncle is a clerk in an accounting office.”  Hearing the words spill out I almost believed it could happen.

“That is nice, but I was thinking you looked like you could be a planter.”

“A planter! That would be a story of rags to riches!”

“Yes it could!” She was laughing a little and wiping off a few drops of rain that blew onto her face.

“Look at you in your planter’s shorts! You almost look the part, and you could even be handsome, except that your socks look funny  bunched up like that around your ankles, and your hair is terrible!”

I found myself laughing with her. I wanted to please her, to confide in her, to reveal my thoughts to her. I told her that if I could  really have had my wish I would have liked to work on the trains. There had been Greves’s in the railway off and on as far back as 1845 when John Ryland Greves was a goods clerk with the Kandy railway.

The faint sun was dying away.  She stood up to stretch and the smoker across the way turned around to look. I did too. She was tall – maybe as tall as I was – That surprised me, and again I could feel a wave of something I could not easily recognise coming over me. It made me want to see into her life. Even though she hadn’t said very much about herself, I could see this girl belonged in her life. I wanted to hold on to that feeling of knowing, so I couldn’t and wouldn’t ask her any questions.  I didn’t need to talk much because I didn’t know what to say anyway. I didn’t want her to ask me too many questions. At the same time I was aware of the way in which she was affecting me. I felt myself giving in to the sort of heavy feeling that comes before a fever, when you don’t want to hold your head up  and you don’t want anything except to be quiet and still and safe.
“Why don’t you come and see us?”

I wondered if  I could really have been hearing this.

“Who? Where? At your house?”

“Yes. My dad and me.  You can easily take the train and we can meet you at the station and drive you back to our home.”

“Your dad has a car?”  So they must be rich.

“Yes – an old Morris Minor – and it runs most of the time.”

“I don’t know – I will have to ask my aunty.”

It was out before I could stop it. It felt like someone else was speaking for me.

“Really? Even on the weekend? How old are you?”


But it was getting late, and the train would soon reach Peradeniya station: Then Kandy. As I watched the darkening world flying past my window, I knew it was flying past me too.  I was thinking now that this was the kind of escape that has no escape. I wished with all my heart that I was someone else: Someone who really had a chance at life: Someone who belonged somewhere safe and secure, or at least someone who had a home, or parents – or even a small job.  A line from an old play drifted into my mind. “I am a tainted wether of the flock,” And the thought that six thousand ducats was a king’s ransom.

“I know about you.”

She was looking away from me now and at the man across from us who had lit another cigarette. He seemed to sense her attention and looked up at her, and she nodded briefly to acknowledge him. I had looked at her during this exchange when she suddenly turned and caught my eye. I fought to not look away. She held steady.

“I know your secret.”

She was biting her lip. Her eyes were deep: Sweet and deep as the sky in which I thought the stars must love to lose themselves. I felt my stomach lurch and my hands begin to turn clammy.  Then  the nervous laughter almost spilled out, at the irony of who had come to judge. But I said nothing.

“Tell me really, what are you going to do in Kandy”?

Against the cool upright of my seat I could feel the dampness on the back of my shirt spreading.

“I really don’t know.”

She nudged my foot with her shoe.

“What are you going to say to your aunt? What do you think she is going to say?”

I thought of Lennie and the serious way in which she said funny things and the funny way she had for saying cutting things, and I felt a little unsure. I knew for certain she would take me in: She had to love me, and we even looked alike, but there was so much that could happen that I didn’t know and couldn’t guess. What I did know was that I just couldn’t go on living as I had been.  It was better to die. I was like a candle in my chemistry class, about to go out because it had burned up all the oxygen in the jar. I thought Lennie would know – might understand –  that about me.

“She might scold me for leaving Colombo.”

There was almost the hint of a catch in her voice.

“Please come and visit me in Peradeniya.”

I noticed the “please.” It leapt out into the air between us together with the ‘us’ that was now a ‘me.’

“I don’t know.”

“Then I’ll come and see you.”

“No. You can’t.”

“Yes I can, and if you don’t come to see me that’s what I’ll do.  Listen to me. I have an idea. My Dad’s brother, Uncle Peter, is a planter. He works at an estate called Bellwood in Newralia.”

She pronounced it in the burgher way.

“And I remember now that quite recently he wrote to my dad and said he was looking for a creeper.”

What was she saying? Was she really saying this?

“Even though it wont pay much you will learn a lot, and you wont need a lot of money anyway, and he wont make you ask permission for everything you do.”

“But they will all find out!”

“Yes, in the end they might: But we could keep it a secret long enough.”

“Long enough? Long enough for what?”

Silence stepped in to make a brief appearance, then the sounds of the train surged back and caught us.

“For us – to get engaged – or something.”

I looked up expecting to see some hint that she was teasing. But she wasn’t. She was serious, and her gaze was fixed on my face.

“I can think up a story. I don’t know what the details will be, but if I have a little time I  know could make it all fit.”

“They will know you are lying with any kind of story you could think up.”

“You don’t know me. I have read a lot of books and heard a lot of stories, and all I’ll have to do is chang a few details.”

“What about my family?”

“Who and who is in your family?”

“Just my Nanna and my Aunt Lennie – Uncle Eddie – Uncle Walter.”

“That’s all?”

“That’s all.”

After all, I didn’t really have a father.

“Alright! That makes it really easy!  We’ll say that your father was a planter and that you were adopted and brought up by your mother’s family. That will make it hard for them to ask too many questions. They will assume that you are not legitimate and that will make them feel too ashamed to ask any questions.”

“Are you crazy? People always ask questions! They ask a lot of questions! – and they don’t stop asking until they have dotted every ‘i’ and crossed every ‘t’.”

“Don’t be a coward. There is nothing to be afraid of.”

“What about – ”

But she cut me off.

“You’ll have to leave all the details to me. Just let me take care of everything. When I was in school I was very good at writing stories, and I always made them have happy endings.”

“All stories can’t have happy endings.”

“Yes they can. All of them.  I detest stories with sad endings. Especially now.”

“Why are you doing this!”

Even I could hear the worry in my voice.

“I don’t know. Maybe its because I like you. Maybe its because I don’t really want to go to university or be a Montesorri teacher or a stenographer,  or worse marry someone and have a lot of children – and there aren’t many other things besides that I could do.”

I shook my head and clasped my clammy hands.

“It will never work.”

This seemed to make her angry. Her face reddened slightly.

“Stop jiggling your leg. And stop acting like a child. You started this! You should have thought of that before you started.”

She saw my frightened look.

“Listen to me. We could pretend that you are like my cousin John.”

I looked at my feet.

“Look at me! His mum, my aunty Amy and my dad were on a ship, on their way to a holiday in England when she met this fellow on board. That’s how she had John. When he was born she kept him, and even gave him the fellow’s last name. My dad probably felt guilty, so he helped her with everything. He sent John to Trinity College, and found him a job even though he didn’t bother to matriculate.”

“Where is your cousin now?”

“He is on an estate in Uva. He is also a planter.  He has a wife and two kids and a car and my aunt lives with them, and she and John’s wife get along and no one ever says anything about his past.  See? A happy ending.”

A whole shimmering world built itself before my eyes, of hand cut-lawns and rose gardens and hydrangea borders: Of mango and mulberry trees and long driveways and cypress hedges: A house with polished red floors and echoing rooms and pictures on the wall and old photographs of dead ancestors.  There would be a teak-wood dining table and food served by men in starched white coats and polished brass buttons:  A bathroom with an enamel tub and a hot water geyser and of course a bedroom with a sofa and an armchair and a side table with a reading lamp: And of course a bed. That was unavoidable. I had never slept next to anyone before in my whole life. I wondered what that would that be like.

She was repeating herself.

“Don’t worry, I can make everything work out.”

She seemed impossibly strong: So much stronger than I felt I could ever be. I thought of my bed in Colombo, across the room from Nanna. I couldn’t  even have my own room because she kept boarders: and here was this girl, deciding her own fate – choosing this thing and pushing the other aside – and in spite of myself I felt a tremor of some feeling that was a mixture of horror and joy.  She said it again.

“Don’t worry, I can make it all work out.”

And I could think of nothing else to do with my life than put it in her hands. Only yesterday the truth of that life seemed unbearable – and now I was going to exchange it for a web of lies in which I was caught like a helpless fly. But never before in the world had there been such an intoxicated fly. To do something with my hands which were about to start shaking, I took out the box of matches from my pocket and began to rattle it.

“Look here,  pull yourself together and listen to me. I’ll tell my dad that I met someone who can creep for Uncle Peter: We can even say you will work for free. Since you know short hand and typing you could even work in the factory office and help him with the clerking. That would really be good.” She spoke faster.

“I know Uncle Peter has an old clerk called Mr. de Jong who wants to retire. He has a son in Australia who has been asking him to leave his job – leave Ceylon – This could really work! I could come and join you!  – And then – ”

She paused for a moment.

“Are you a Methodist?”

“Yes. Why?”

But she didn’t answer.  She seemed to drift away and I could see she was  absorbed in thinking. “That’s good.”

What on earth did it matter whether or not I was a Methodist? What did it matter whether the world saw me as I was or wasn’t? I was invisible. No one had seen me before this. She was the only one who had ever seen me. Here I sat in a dead man’s thin blue cotton shirt and old khaki shorts, buckles pulled tight as far as they would go at the waist, with only a few coins and not even a hanky in my pocket, and she was seeing me and my present, past and future in a way I could never have dreamed possible. Sometimes when I looked at old people I imagined I could see around the corner into the past when they were young. I liked doing that, but I had never met anyone who could grasp and unravel the whole thread of life wrapped around a single moment.

The air outside the window had turned chilly and again the rain had begun to fall. The trees looked wet and glistening in the thick, heavy light. All along the way there had been little cadjan-thatched huts with bunches of plantains hanging from the rafters and men and women sitting beside baskets of fruits and betel leaves and piles of new clay pots. I had watched them with envy, even envying the occupants of the little graves with their cement headstones, that came into view from time to time.

I thought  of how in less than an hour I might be sitting down for dinner at Lennie’s table, with the antique Dutch oil lamp shedding its light on the dishes and glasses. I could see the scarred bread-board with its companion the bone handled knife which she kept by her side, cutting off a couple of slices at a time as they were needed. We would have bread every night I knew. No rice for dinner that was Lennie’s way of keeping up the old burgher ways.  Then I saw myself sitting with her at the table. I felt like a fly that had flown into a fly-paper, unable to move without tearing myself apart. All the bits and pieces of my past had suddenly become disconnected. The years in boarding school, a father who only left the asylum for a few weeks at a time and then during the term rather than the holidays, my resourceful Nanna making do by taking in boarders and supplying lunches to office workers, mending my socks with the old silver thimble with the holes in it on her finger, and telling me how it had belonged to her favourite aunt, who sewed dolls dresses in the latest Victorian fashions. I saw myself watching her unpick the tacking thread from a hem to save and use again, I saw myself as a child, with my Kandy grandfather who bought me marbles, and thread and  tissue paper for kites, and how happiness seemed to appear and disappear and be replaced by pain and emptiness. Now that past would have to be left behind, together with all the scenes that passed by my train window today. How simple and yet how strange life was turning out to be – frightening and mysterious and full of promises I didn’t know could ever be fulfilled.

The train was pulling in to Peradeniya station. She reached out suddenly and grabbed my hand, shaking it hard with both hers,  sending  a hot jolt of electricity through us both, making us prickle with the sparks. She leaned forward and I could feel the pulse in my neck begin to throb.

“Remember everything I said!”

“Alright. Yes: I will.”

Neither one of us had a pencil or paper, so she told me her address.

“Write to me first and ask about my uncle Peter. Then I’ll arrange things and write back.”

The tension and the excitement inside me rose to such a pitch, I felt everything around me begin to melt and disappear. I could see something reflected in her face and in her eyes, which were glittering brightly in the uneven light of the compartment.  The pattern of what life had meant to me shifted and changed like the sudden click of a kaleidoscope.

“Yes,” I said:  “Yes.”

I got her suitcase down from the luggage rack and stepped down to the platform with it.  A porter came running and grabbed it. She turned away.  I got back into the train and stood leaning out of the middle window. I saw a tall older man in a white cotton suit and brown hat come walking towards her. She almost ran towards him. They kissed and embraced each other. She turned around and waved, and I watched her thin straight form move away until it got swallowed up in the crowd. The guard blew his whistle and waved his flag. The train began slowly to grind its tired way away from the station platform.

I sat down, suddenly feeling weak. My legs were shaking and my eyes turned hot and filled with tears.  I took out the last crumpled cigarette from my shirt pocket and began to smoke. I began to compose a letter to her in my head, and it was then I realized that I didn’t know her name. A sense of horror came over me and deepened until I felt myself engulfed in it.  I thought, this must be what it feels like to die.  I could recall every detail of her face, every expression, every mannerism, every inflection of her voice.

But the address had flown out of my mind like a bird leaving its cage.














The Burghers are the mixed descendants of Dutch, French and  to a lesser degree, British colonial settlers in Ceylon. They  were

A Planter with his family and staff.

an anglicised culture, speaking English as their first language, and were largely employed in the public sector, but also the schools, and the banks, etc.  It would not be an over-statement to say they ran the country, until Ceylon gained its independence from the British in 1948.

The  subsequent rise of nationalistic sentiments and the shift from English to Sinhalese as the lingua franca sealed the fate of the Burghers, and their displacement  and removal as a stable part of Ceylonese society. The displacement, which in fact was an eviction, began to pick up speed in the early ‘fifties, when most of the Burghers began to leave to country and move to other parts of the British commonwealth, chiefly to Australia and Canada.

Tea was brought to Ceylon by the British, in the mid 19th Century as a source of revenue,  and a complex sub- culture grew up around the business. Planters were a sub-set of a certain social class originally

Job offer made to an 18 year old in response to an application.

consisting mostly of Englishmen and Burghers. Their positions allowed considerable autonomy over the running of very large tea and rubber plantations, and over the labour force (Imported from South India) used to pluck the tea leaves – a highly labour-intensive process.

Most Planters lived in large bungalows built in the style of country houses, and were served by sizable staffs of servants. Most parent companies would provide their British Planters an all-expenses-paid trip to England every ten years, and in time this privilege was extended to the Ceylonese as well.

This story is set at the beginning of  the time of social upheaval and unraveling for the Burghers. About forty years or so ago,  the government began the processes which ended in its seizing ownership of  the tea  and rubber estates, and a way of life came to an end, but by that time the Burgher diaspora had been well underway for decades.

A ‘creeper’ is an apprentice Planter.

The picture at the top of the post, shown in lieu of the writer, is that of a girl. She was my Aunt Mone’s school-friend.

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First published under the title of ‘The Dark Side of Venus’, if you are looking for the kind of salacious lesbian romance that can be lazily read in the course of a single afternoon, you can safely give this one a miss. But even if you could read it quickly you would find that the protagonists in this story are not the kind of substance-less characters upon which we frequently find the overwrought fabric of sexually graphic material conveniently draped.

This book is a totally overlooked treasure – and even when I clearly understand why this is so, I still can’t quite believe it.
The writing is bold and precise while being at the same time personal and evocative. Even the most minor characters, presented in vivid vignettes are as unforgettably drawn as the nurse and the friar in Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’.
The secondary – and of course the main characters emerge as very real people – with the result that to me they are simultaneously intimate and iconic.

Dialogue, is where one finds many writers falling short, but Verel has perfect pitch in this department. She is deft and clear, and adept, and if readers do not pay close attention to everything that is said by the characters – both reading and ‘ listening’ between the lines, much of the book’s nuance and subtlety will be missed. One has to almost read this book in the way one reads poetry.

The plot, set in London and its suburbs, is fairly simple – girl meets girl – they take a while to delicately acknowledge the force that draws them together, they fall in love and become a couple, difficulties intervene to drive them apart, and when all has been lost and they hang on a single frayed thread, incredibly the prospect of a restored love and its suggested success is recovered.

Those are the bare bones, but the story is so beautifully and unforgettably wrought, that I have re read it innumerable times over a period of more than twenty four years.
Shirley Verel writes about love between women in an indeterminate time between the late ‘fifties’ and the early ‘sixties’.

Judith Allart is divorced from her husband Martin, in large part because of the inescapable – if one is honest – incompatibility which results when a lesbian marries a heterosexual man, even one as civilised as Martin. Despite her honesty, she does not tell him that she is a lesbian until much later, – and to my way of thinking, this, rather than being a deception, is the proof of her very private nature. Judith and Martin are still friends, though Martin continues to cherish the hope of a reconciliation.

Judith is intelligent and aloof – and though we are spared the clumsy and excessive physical descriptions commonly resorted to by writers who want their readers to find their protagonists attractive, one slowly gets the suggested sense that she is also beautiful – tall, slender and fair-haired with a skin that easily takes a tan. She is twenty eight when she meets Diana Quendon the niece of Andrew, one of her wealthy colleagues. Diana, a beautiful dark haired nineteen, has just published a lighthearted book about her life as a schoolgirl in a French convent, and the book is garnering unexpected success and publicity. Andrew throws a party for Diana, and Judith is invited – and the two meet.

Though things seem very hit-or miss at first, the two of them are brought together by a force that somehow impels them towards each other, and through all the course of their getting to know each other, quickly the unstated force of their love begins to emerge and inevitably direct their actions and circumstances.
Judith’s motives are lofty and altruistic – and paradoxical. She knows from her own experience that a lesbian can never make a success of a heterosexual marriage, yet she has convinced herself all the same, that it may be possible, for a young women of lesbian inclination (like Diana) to avoid a full acknowledgment of her true nature, and somehow ‘fit in’ to the less complicated and less potentially tragic arrangement of a heterosexual lifestyle.

Even when it is clear to Judith that Diana is painfully in love with her, she determinedly holds back – not wishing Diana to forgo the chance and ‘privilege’ of a conventional life. This persists even Diana makes it clearly though un-explicitly known to Judith that she feels no passion at all for her beau Gerald Paley,the lively, ‘normal’ and thoroughly heterosexual boyfriend who wants to marry her The tension created by Judith’s agonised resistance which in turn forbids Diana to frankly express her own feelings, creates a tightrope for them both. Eventually, when it can no longer be denied, they tacitly acknowledge the elephant in the room, and go off together to France for a summer vacation.

The women drive through the French countryside and room chastely together in little rented lodgings – because though Judith yearns express her feelings, she resists. She has imposed upon herself a condition of reserve, because of a conviction that she wants Diana to make the first move: Love remains palpable and unspoken, until an accident on the way back to England literally makes further suppression impossible.
Finally there is the much anticipated clarification, and two of them decide to turn back and have the kind of holiday they should have had in the first place.
No sooner it seems ( barely a week or so ) than the lovers and declare themselves, than their secret is exposed to – and later by – Julian, a conservative friend and suitor of Judith’s who arrives to vacation in France..

When Judith and Diana return home after their vacation, they move in together for a brief period of blissful domesticity in Judith’s London flat. However, Julian reveals the truth about them, and this leads inevitably to a wrenching separation.

I don’t want to give away the rest of the story, except to say that there is so much said in here – and not at all heavy – handedly but almost as a suggestion – about the nature of true love: Both lovers are terribly altruistic, and willing to sacrifice themselves and their happiness for the other, and this is what I find most beautiful and at the same time, aggravating about this story. Today we might find it astonishing that false morality and hypocritical and priggish conventions could coerce women in love with each other to forgo their chance at love and happiness, but those were the repressively homophobic mores which prevailed at the time. It is clear that neither Andrew or Julian is capable of experiencing or understanding love – and yet they are only too happy to judge.

I found the separation of Judith and Diana the most wrenchingly painful part of the book to read. Every time I read it I have to clench my teeth to get through it.
Told almost as a story within a story and Indelible and telling are the incidents in Judith’s girlhood and life prior to her meeting with Diana – which led her to an acknowledgment of her lesbian nature . It is difficult for us today to imagine this world of more than fifty years ago – when lesbian love had to be kept a secret from society. It seems unbelievable now that being gay then was so freighted with fear and peril.

The other slight and perhaps incongruous note to me was that both Judith and Diana seemed to possess the kind of poise and innate dignity that one expects to find in much more mature people – but then again – this could be because they are meant by Verel to be presented to us as remarkable…

The book suffers slightly from careless editing – I found one small gap – nothing I could not extrapolate – and a dropped word. Though it is impossible to blame Virago press their oversights: If not for them, this little gem would be completely unknown.

Verel steadfastly avoids the trite certainties that accompany most love-stories, and her prose is both pared down and vivid. It felt to me like a perfume which though fresh and clean and strong is full of intense complexity.
Her other lesbian love story ‘The Bee’s Kiss’ set in England of the ‘fifties, is also about the love affair between and ‘older’ ( in her twenties ) and ‘younger’ ( in her teens) woman. It is no less wonderfully written.

I found one other lesbian short story by Verel, ‘Going With the Weather’ in an anthology of mostly terrible lesbian short stories, and one other book ‘ ‘Room for Trouble’. The fourth book ‘Goodnight my Vow is difficult, though not impossible to find, and I have found only one mention of the fifth, – ‘Little Girl Left’.

I tried very hard and very unsuccessfully to find out more about this wonderful but elusive writer who is not well known, and certainly not celebrated here in the U.S. Perhaps it is because she is so serious and un-sensational, and has to be read with attention, If not read carefully the finesse of her subtle touch will go unnoticed.

Regrettably this is a detriment in an age of careless readers, so I think this book will never get the attention and appreciation it so richly deserves.
I think this story would also make an excellent movie – and I wish someone would.

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March Hastings was the pen name of Sally Singer – who also wrote under the name of Laura Duchamp. I came upon the cover of Hasting’s book ‘Three Women’ featured on the cover of a book about book covers – Jaye Zimet’s study of the cover art of lesbian pulps entitled ‘Strange Sisters: the art of lesbian pulp fiction’.

Hasting’s style is confident, and her pace does not flag. For the usual hurriedly written books of that genre, her plot is surprisingly layered. The designation of ‘overwrought’ so dismissively applied to the prose of lesbian pulp fiction is in some cases – and in this particular instance, blatantly undeserved and unjust. Ann Bannon of Beebo Brinker fame, a cynosure of lesbian pulps, after all, possessed a Phd in linguistics! Nor does Hastings disappoint.

During the ‘fifties and ‘sixties, so-called lesbian ‘pulps’ were the the ‘plat du jour’, catering to the pressing hunger of lesbians for visibility. It was a hunger so urgent that it could be met even under the cover of blatant animadversion.

Anna Foss Wilson

I have to admit that what compelled me to get this book was its cover, and specifically the face on that cover: Coincidentally (?!) its amazing resemblance to Anna Foss Wilson, who played Beebo in the theatre production of Ann Bannon’s Beebo Brinker.

This was a face which perfectly captured the secret dream of love between women in the ‘fifties: The ravishing curve of sweeping lashes, the lowered gaze of concealed passion, the inwardly turned expression of banked intensity, which were then the apt symbols of lesbian love. Ann Bannon refers to these affairs as ‘a flaming romances’ – and ‘Three Women’ is nothing if not a work of un-aplogetic female for female passion.

Even so, I had to overcome a reflexive reluctance to trudge once more along the cheerless and dispirited path of lesbian fiction of that

Anna Foss Wilson

era, with its themes of happiness blighted, hopes dashed, women expelled from the warm arms of other women into the starkness of the hetero wilderness and condemned/compelled to join the plodding ranks of stepford-wifedom which was the treasured ideal of the ‘fifties.

But this book has what Carlos Castaneda refers to as
‘ A path with a heart’, and thereby delightfully exceeded all my expectations.

Here’s the synopsis. Protagonist Paula is a lovely young girl from a blue-collar background, living with her parents and teen-aged brother in a cold water flat, which is in fact a tenement . Paula is beautiful and a budding artist. Her father, to whom the family is devoted, is terminally ill as a result of a lifetime of drinking. Her resigned and long- suffering mother is worn out by a life of hardship and penury. Paula’s younger brother Mike is a bit of a jerk, but in a way that sixty years ago passed for standard male behaviour.

Phil, Paula’s handsome upper-class boyfriend and soon to be fiancè with whom she is ‘in love’, is a thoroughly upstanding guy. Phil is Paula’s ticket out of this dreary life.

Phil has ambitions of owning his own business, a paint store, but he lacks the capital for this venture. He takes Paula along for the ride when he goes to visit his spinster aunt Bernadette, in the hope of tapping her for the down payment.

The reasoning behind Phil’s Freudian slip is that he hopes Paula’s presence might tip the scales in his favour.

Paula is expecting to meet a wizened old biddy, but what she finds (though she still doesn’t quite get it ), is what we instantly recognise as a fabulously ravishing dyke, elegantly dressed in the high ‘fifties dyke couture of white silk shirt and charcoal grey slacks. Byrne, as she likes to be called, is compellingly beautiful. She exudes that species of magnetically irresistible charm lesbians (and perhaps some straight men) dream of encountering. Byrne is aptly named for her smouldering beauty.

Needless to say Paula is irredeemably smitten: Though she surrenders to Phil in a misstep of displaced passion, things are obviously not right. For her Byrne is a ‘coup de foudre’. Byrne’s upscale flat also features the portrait of a naked woman. Byrne, we find out, is a gifted painter.

Somehow for Paula, the mix is both heady and incendiary. She is instantly captivated and drawn like a moth to the flame of Byrne’s presence, even to the point of (very innocently ) stalking her. Paula’s seemingly hitherto unexamined heterosexuality is demolished in a passionate conflagration ,

Paula pursues Byrne, and Byrne yields to Paula’s persistent importunities, as a consequence of which the two fall in love, They begin an affair with all the expected charm of a same- sex May / September romance and many accompanying flying sparks. Paula studies painting under Byrne’s artistic tutelage. She seems even to play a naive Galatea to Byrne’s indulgent but understated Pygmalion.

But alas the path of true love never did run smooth did it? Paula’s discovery that Byrne’s past still haunts her makes her jealous and insecure.

In order to reassure Paula, Byrne recounts to her (in what is a chilling cautionary tale), the blossoming of Byrne’s first love with Greta. It is a story which ends tragically, due to the homo-sadistic interference of Greta’s mother, an interference which Byrne’s psyche manages to survive, but Greta’s does not.

By the time we come across Greta she is deranged. She is a grotesque, shattered, occasionally violent ruin, whose life is sustained by Byrne’s pity – and guilt. Byrne suffers Greta’s unpredictable and sometimes frightening intrusions with kindness and forbearance. Byrne is determined to spare Paula the terrible fate which overtook her and Greta.

Here I digress a little in order to interject a personal observation or two, but only because I am convinced of their contextual relevence: Besides, such a richly textured plot as this, makes one’s hermeneutical impulses impossible to resist!

I readily admit, I shrank from reading part three of this book, anticipating the dreaded ectoplasm of vicarious repression that would ooze out of the pages and engulf me in the feeling of hopelessness and loss of lesbian love gone wrong, replete with the heaviness of other-imposed shame and guilt.

I didn’t want to subject myself to feeling the sense of paranoia of the ‘gay’ ‘fifties, when simply a whiff of one’s homosexuality could lead to the kind of discovery culminating in social decapitation. Being gay was after all, in those inquisitorial times, a pathology, for which one could be quite legally lobotomized.

Lobotomy was then considered a cure for otherwise incurable homosexuality, and concomitantly, the ‘schizophrenia’ of the double life of homosexuals.

The sinister Dr Walter Freeman ( the wizard of the ‘ice pick’ lobotomy) said of his ‘patients’ ” They cannot dream” – and this must have been an additional inducement – if such a thing was at all required, to those who reveled in the sight of sexual heretics being sacrificed on the pyre of heterosexist dogma.

I knew I couldn’t’ stomach the story of another such lesbian disaster.

But somehow I made myself go on reading, and as I did, I couldn’t escape the feeling about Greta that I was gazing at a palimpsest. I had the feeling that something beneath the surface was seeping through, that was sensed but not quite seen.

Then it came to me, that sure enough, this was an intertextual reprise of Charlotte Brontë’s classic, ‘Jane Eyre’!

The figure of Greta is surely something out of a gothic novel: A travesty in the real sense – of something wrongly clothed.

The echo I had heard inside my head was the sound of footsteps: Those Mr Rochester’s insane wife Bertha escaping her warder and running around the manor at night. Bertha, who would in a fit of jealousy and rage destroy Jane’s symbol of love, her wedding veil, just as Greta destroyed a treasured painting of Byrne’s.

But will the parallel continue? Will Greta, like Bertha, nearly destroy her former lover just as the lover was about to begin a new life with a much younger woman?
Do we as readers hear the literary equivalent of the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth? Could this be the dreaded past making it’s unwelcome intrusion into the present solely in order to confound one when one is on the verge of attaining a dearly longed for and long deferred happiness?

Old lost loves, now turned grotesque and sinister, but also tragic, can serve as warnings to us of the terrible wreckage love can leave behind. In this case, the wreck is the damage wrought to the psyches of sexual dissidents (lesbians like Greta and Byrne) by the sadistic and punitive eruptions they unwittingly unleash in people like Greta’s mother. Could the same fate overtake Byrne and Paula?

I held my breath waiting for the wolf-note of cynicism to interject itself into the narrative as so disappointingly and repeatedly happens in the lesbian novels of the pre- Stonewall lesbian dark ages, including Ann Bannon’s. I gritted my teeth for the compulsory commissurotomy that comes at the end of the lesbian relationship, when love is kicked aside and ground into the dirt. Would Hastings/Singer also step on that particular mine?

Will Paula’s and Byrne’s touching adoration of each other remain alive?
Will Byrne show herself to be as ethical and constant as she as well bred?
Will Paula remain starry-eyed? or will the homophobia of their word defeat them?
Will Byrne do better by Greta than Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester does by poor lost Bertha his insane wife? Or will she disappoint us after all?
Will love conquer all – or will it fight hard only to be defeated in the end?

This book is remarkable for its purity and sensitivity. It never succumbs to debauchery or cheapness, and its little clichés are endearing and forgivable.
Though ‘Three Women’ is a hi fidelity reverberation of the ‘fifties, will this particular song stay fresh, or strike a sour note?
Will the denouement break our hearts – or merely disappoint?

Read this book and find out!

When Hastings published ‘Three Women’ in 1950, ‘Nevertheless’ by The Mills Brothers, was number 17 on the top 40.

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In lieu of an image of Ann Wadsworth, this painting by Edward Hopper: Cape Cod Morning


















It is impossible to over-praise this gem of a first novel by Ann Wadsworth, and I profoundly lament the fact that in the nine years since its publication there has been no second.

One can always tell when a writer has fallen in love with her character because such characters become Muse-like objects of passion. Mercedes Medina (with whom we are never permitted to presume on first name familiarity) is a softly glowing pearl in the hands of this self-assured and brilliant writer, in command of such an elegant unencumbered style. Wadsworth’s book invites us to ask and answer questions about the nature and durability of different kinds of love: the intense loves of first awakenings, the un-recognised loves that prefigure them, the stable sustaining everyday loves which often have the propensity to stifle and make stagnant, and perhaps another kind of love – the love we sometimes choose in later life, which is not based on urgent need.

I can’t explain exactly why, but at times I felt that Wadsworth was channeling Virginia Woolf, and evoking Mrs. Dalloway. I felt that both characters shared the sense of weighted reticence that stood as an obstruction between themselves and their lives. Mrs. Medina cannot be blamed for being in no hurry to reveal herself to us, because all her life she has kept herself in the dark as well. The title of this book is clever – light returns as a reflection – and that is what this book truly is.

Mrs. Medina has been married for twenty five years to her eighty-five year old husband Patrick, an acclaimed cellist, whose health is in swift decline. She is approaching her sixtieth year, when she impulsively enters a flower shop and meets the young woman who works there. This meeting, and the scent of a gardenia, which is a potent olfactory jolt to the reclamation of a suppressed romantic memory, come together at this overdue climacteric of her life.

Mrs. Medina soon finds herself helplessly impelled by the insistent and irresistible clamour of a lifetime of repressed inclinations to seek a connection with Lennie, a woman in her thirties, who is the florist’s helper. At their first meeting Lennie is wearing the same muted colours (grey and white) worn by a woman Mrs. Medina first saw on her honeymoon, when they both took the same elevator. The woman, who wore a grey suit and white blouse, sparked in Mrs. Medina the first inchoate, brutally suppressed and repressed longings that resurfaced with Lennie.

Here is an amusing intertextual coincidence: In Patricia Highsmith’s book The Price of Salt, (written under the pseudonym Claire Morgan and said the first lesbian love story to have a happy ending)  Therese, a young sales clerk at Woolworth’s, sees Carol, a beautiful sophisticated older woman, come in to make a purchase. This proves to be a coupe de foudre for Therese, who goes on to have a relationship with Carol. The incident was of course directly lifted from Highsmith’s own life, and soon after the brush with the real-life ‘Carol’ character, Kathleen Senn, Highsmith went home and fell violently ill with the chicken pox. Mrs. Medina too, after her first encounter with Lennie, comes down with a bad sore throat and accompanying cold.

I could push the coincidence to observe that ‘Claire Morgan’ could be translated as ‘clear morning’ or ‘clear tomorrow’ – so both novels appear to share the same suggestion of light returning…

But coming back to Mrs. Medina: Her meeting with Lennie precipitates a love affair that in real life would be quite improbable, but this romance, in the case of Mrs. Medina, seems almost foreordained.

Mrs. Medina is the May in the May/December marriage to her valetudinarian husband Patrick, but with Lennie she is if not quite December, then at least November. But, this November, far from being grey and dreary, is beautiful, cultured and cool as early morning rain in April. She teaches Italian literature at the University. However, she finds no satisfaction there, in casting before her swinish little pupils the anguished pearls of Elio Vittorini (a Sicilian writer whose book she is translating) and Italo Calvino. We may reasonably conclude that Vittorini’s post-war, anti-fascist writing has a strong resonance for Mrs. Medina, because, we suspect, herein resounds an echo of her long standing marriage to Patrick, who relentlessly exercises his own slightly whacky kind of fascism over her.

Mrs. Medina at first hesitantly, and then defiantly (if one could be so brash as to ascribe such a vehement quality as defiance to her) surrenders to her compulsion to love. There follows a very touching (though finally robust) account of her sexual and emotional awakening. Mrs. Medina’s stars must have been in a very propitious alignment, because she could not have wished for a more perfect lover than Lennie, who is undeterred by either Mrs. Medina’s age or her inexperience.

But things go wrong. Exeunt Lennie, and Patrick (the latter rather more permanently than the former) and in the middle of her life Mrs. Medina loses her way and begins her descent into hell. This is I think the most powerful and intense part of the book. Wadsworth spares us nothing in her brilliant exploration of the torment and anguish of lost love, when everything that has any meaning for one disappears. Like Dante’s Virgil, she guides us through the infernal pathways of Mrs. Medina’s grieving mind and delivers her into what we hope will be the light.

Of course the process is not that fast, and some relief is to be had when Mrs. Medina’s friend and colleague Tina arranges for her to have a Caribbean getaway. Blue ocean, languid tropical surroundings and warm friends help Mrs. Medina gently face her existential dilemma, and we begin to catch a glimpse of possible salvation.

I was fascinated by the slow accretion Wadsworth makes of Mrs. Medina’s traits and characteristics, which gradually place her before us as a completely convincing woman. When she falls in love, she begins to take determined steps away from her effete and inert role of wife, into the initiative required of her as a lover. She gradually loses her incorporeality and gains in substance as she bends the light so that we watch her unfolding, and revealing the artifacts hidden behind in her past. I think there may be a significant connection I am missing here that has to do with the flowers – maybe a tip of the hat to Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, and maybe something secret about the flowers themselves  – Lisianthus, Gardenia etc…


I felt I was being transported into something resembling an altered state by the intense interiority of Mrs. Medina’s ‘voice’: a voice which soundlessly implanted itself in me. I was completely captured and swept into her world by Wadsworth’s preternaturally precise observations of place and time that made the ordinary minutiæ of Mrs. Medina’s life loom like the monuments to memory that little things sometimes become. I am referring now to the woman in the grey suit. Wadsworth introduced that scene like a gentle touch, when it was in fact for Mrs. Medina a high velocity hollow point projectile  which had an entry but not an exit wound.

I like to think of Mrs. Medina as a vindicating reprise of Mrs. Dalloway. Mrs. Dalloway never managed to remove her mask – perhaps she didn’t know she was wearing one, but though Mrs. Medina sowed the wind, she somehow managed to hang on to the whirlwind. Behind her reserve, her diffidence and her timidity, she hid an implacable impulse towards emotional and erotic fulfillment.

If there was a discordant note in this novel, it was somehow the character of Patrick, whose unfortunate episodes of childish petulance, together with his obduracy and zaniness, were never deplored and shown in what I thought should have been an honest light. His outbursts were I think, too charitably responded to, and somehow even made to seem oracular. I thought the extreme solidity of the love between Mrs. Medina and Patrick was implausible, in light of the fact that he acted as if she was a meal he was fully justified in devouring because it was his last supper. And now, as I seemed to have succumbed to indulging my criticality, I might mention that I also found Wadsworth’s mannerism of always referring to Mrs. Medina as ‘Mrs. Medina’ (though I did see the reason for it) a little wearying.

I think Wadsworth contrived Patrick’s relentless red-blooded self-assertion and his sheer exuberance as a foil to Mrs. Medina’s somewhat anemic paleness of character and her hidden sense of self, and his flourishing exit from mortal life was meant to contrast with Mrs. Medina’s diffident (though tenacious) entry into her lesbian existence. Another symmetry of course was the reversal in her affair with Lennie of the age difference in her marriage with Patrick.
In many ways I thought Lennie was more appealing than Mrs. Medina. Lennie lacked the insulation of affluence and untroubled conventional life Mrs. Medina took for granted. Her willingness to adapt to a much older (albeit elegant) woman’s awkward and inexpert amatory choreography with infinite patience and finesse, was I thought quite exemplary. I cared about Mrs. Medina’s happiness, but I think I cared cared as much, if not more, for Lennie’s.

Based on my limited experience, I felt a certain empathy with Wadsworth because of her obvious love and intimate knowledge of Italy, and her respect for Italian literary worthies such as Elio Vittorini, Italo Calvino and Natalia Ginsberg, whom (as if she expects us to already know them) she refers to only by their last names. Last summer I translated one of Ginsberg’s short stories myself, and experienced first hand the despair and delight of trying to transform the Italian voice to English.

The sheer beauty of Wadsworth’s spare and elegant placement of words, and their telling impact, is striking and awe inspiring. I find that to read such good writing is inevitably to crave more. This book is a deeply honest and illumined exploration of many interwoven themes – love, loss, mortality, the encroachments of age, and the journey of awakening to one’s own authentic nature. It is a firm reminder that at some point in our lives, if we are lucky, love will compel us to face the difficult challenge of finding, confronting and embracing our own true selves. This was an uplifting and substantially satisfying read, and I await a second novel with eager expectation.

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Han Suyin/ Elizabeth Comber/ Roselle Elizabeth Kuanghu Chow: September 12 1917



















I can’t quite recall how and where I first saw this title mentioned, except that it was in the rather solemnly pompous pronouncement of some self-appointed male arbiter of tasteful writing, who commended ‘Winter Love’ for “its delicate and sensitive treatment of a difficult subject”, by which of course he meant he was praising  it for being the kind of novel which, despite its lesbian subject, ended ‘circumspectly’, and thus did not transgress the decent and proper constraints of heterosexual values and good taste.

At any rate, by a lucky chance, I became aware of this particularly well-written and semi- autobiographical lesbian novel I had not even heard of before.

This tautly written novel is set in the bleak sulphurous greyness of WWII England and its dangerous uncertainties, where two young women, Mara and Red, meet in medical school. The writer, Elizabeth Comber, who wrote under the nom de plume/guerre of Han Suyin, was the daughter of a Belgian mother and a Chinese father. She unceremoniously plunges us, her readers, into the miasmic atmosphere of dreariness and near-Dickensian shabbiness of the world which was Britain during WWII; a microcosm of which is the squalid boarding house in which Red lives.

Red’s grubbiness is in contrast to elegant and perfumed Mara, whose prosperous businessman husband can afford a warm and comfortable flat with hot running water. Red, an orphan, doggedly fends for herself, and her barely suppressed anger is a prickly foil to Mara’s tender nature.

Red has had previous relationships with women, (Mara has not) but she is resistant to looking at either her experiences or herself in the context of what those relationships  signify. She cannot grasp the truth about herself, and is therefore unable either to see or accept herself in a way that would allow her to be happy and self-affirming. She is pursued by the ghosts of her previous involvements, and when the inevitable happens and Mara and Red fall in love with each other, Red is unable to to keep the taint of her past from infecting her present.

Mara secretly rents a flat where they can be together when Mara’s husband Karl is away on business. Mara, though married to a man, has a clear sense of her own unfolding, and of who and what she is. She is determined to find a way to live an authentic life with Red. She is open and willing to love, and to be affectionate, and to express the sexual feelings which are the natural accompaniment to romantic love. She is beautifully lucid and open to the flowering of her emotions and feelings, and to where they are leading her to her self-identification as a lesbian. In sharp contrast, Red is angry and overcome with jealousy that Mara for the present has to maintain the illusion of a marriage ( albeit completely hollow and loveless ) with her husband Karl. Red expresses her anger and insecurity and jealousy by lashing out at Mara and subjecting her to emotional cruelty. Her sexual feelings are twisted and confused.

Mara’s love is unaffected by Red’s venom and her unkindness. She refuses to allow herself to be drawn into the distortions that Red’s tormented and tormenting behaviour create for the two of them. Mara possesses a sanity and generosity that Red, who is parsimonious and bitter, completely lacks.

When the two of them leave together for a holiday in rural Wales, (which turns out to be quite dreadful and dogged with mishaps), more evidence is offered of the tragi-comedic absurdity of human relationships, and the frailty of human nature, and in particular the oafishness of men.

We as readers know, as Red does not, that against such odds, in order for her relationship with Mara to survive in such an inhospitable climate, Red would have to be tenacious and determined. She simply doesn’t know that if she were to have a chance of being happy, would have to keep old wounds from festering, and allow herself to be healed in the love lavished on her by Mara. If love were to endure, it would have to be rooted in the soul at a depth beyond the reach of frost, and not in the shallow rocky hard-scrabble of Red’s self-disowning heart.

Winter Love, published in 1952, is a pre-figuring or Sarah Waters ‘The Night Watch’. Both are stories set in WWII England of damaged people and their failed and failing relationships. Both stories begin backwards in the present and move into the past. They both ask and answer the question of how the characters came to end up as they did. They both examine the disastrous consequences of blighted love, and the ways in which it destroys the human heart and human potential.

The narrative of ‘Winter Love’ begins many years after Red’s and Mara’s love affair has ended. Now Red is a middle-aged woman. Both women have made their choices, and Red knows that hers has not been the right one. The story is related in her voice, with the dry touch of retrospective bitterness that a certain degree of self-loathing makes inevitable, and yet it is also a cri du coeur of longing and regret.

The knowledge that unfulfilled love has resulted in an incomplete self has come too late to Red, and the chance of salvation has been lost with the irreclaimable past. In a futile protest Red cries out her belated recrimination at Mara for not having fought her rejection – But Mara and her past have been left behind in that long-ago Winter in which contentment may have been found if only Red had paid the the price of honesty and courage, and so it happened that the kingdom was lost for a nail. Despite her name, (which means ‘bitter’ in Hebrew,) it is not Mara who is bitter, because she had the courage to take her personal version of Pascal’s wager, and so she hazarded the self she knew would be lost anyway, if she like Red had decided to repudiate her true self in return for the dubious inducements of a hollow social institution and to societal imperatives of compulsory heterosexuality. Interestingly Han Suyin herself had four failed heterosexual marriages: the first to a Chinese man, the second to an Australian, third to  an Englishmen, and the fourth to an Indian.

There is an incident when Red leaves town to spend Christmas in the country with the spinster aunt who took her in after the deaths (at different times) of her parents. Mara, in what to Red is an act of huge extravagance, calls her long distance. In the course of their strained inane un-private conversation, interrupted every three minutes by the operator who asks Mara if she wants to pay for the next three minutes. Mara tries to ‘break through’ by asking Red if she likes Blake and tigers, obviously referring to William Blake’s metaphysical poem “Tyger Tyger”. The profound significance of the insight she is trying to communicate is obvious. Blake’s Tyger is a marvel of creation, and a powerful, beautiful creature, though set apart from the lambs. But Red is only uncomprehending and irritated. All she can hear Mara asking is a pointless and stupid question about tigers. If only she had sought some clarification.

This incident more than anything else illustrates for me the tense impasse between the two women, which is caused by Red’s inability to see beyond the imperfect, and Mara’s inspired grasp of the imperative, the conditional and the future.

A case could be made that this novel is about the perversity of human nature and the futility of love. All the marriages in it are ghastly, and all the relationships repellent. Red’s past and present offer her ample evidence that ordinary people fail each other in horrible ways due to lack of honesty and decency and kindness. It is clear to us as readers that in this respect, Mara’s unfailing decency shows her as far from being an ordinary person. Yet Red ignores it all. She is grubby and literal, and lamentably, she completely misses all the magic. I wonder if Han Suyin had her regrets as well.

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