BOOKS / The Dance: Among 20 works by women artists selected by women writers for a new show at the Tate was Paula Rego's 'The Dance': this story was written in response to it
Sunday 10 October 1993
They lived above the bread shop; the house was thin and old and the windows looked out on the heaving grey North Sea. On winter afternoons, when sky and sea merged and the rain beat down on Cromer, her mother would draw the curtains and shiver. Then she would talk of another sea, peacock blue and peacock green, lapping white sands. A castle overlooked that sea, a castle alone on its promontory; no town, no bread shop. There she had lived, there still her mother lived. One day she would go there with Jennifer. 'You will see the sun as you have never seen it,' she said in her oddly formal English.
Once on the promenade, staring at the whitening sea, she wept, but went on staring at it. The rain slashed down and mixed with her tears. Jennifer began to cry too. 'In my beginning is my end,' said her mother. Jennifer pulled her sleeve with numb starfish fingers and they trudged up the cliff path. The house seemed warm to Jennifer then and welcoming, with the scent of the bread which was always baking, or steaming and brown on racks, her father in his white overall waving through the misted pane in the kitchen door. But her mother would pull her coat collar up as if she were even colder now she was indoors, and she ducked her head down and ran up the stairs with her nose wrinkled. There was no escape from the doughy fragrance. On the sitting- room table, heaped on her mother's great Portuguese platter, azure and white as her far seas, were the day's failures or unsuccesses. 'There is no such thing as failure. There is only unsuccess,' said her father. Jennifer found this statement meaningless, but could see that it annoyed her mother. Anyhow, there they were for her tea-time delectation, broken bread lobster pincers, and crab claws, antennae and small warped crustaceans. For her this was home, the smell of the bread and the crunch of the crust, the coal fire sizzling as the rain spat down the chimney, the curtains drawn and outside the great roaring sea and the lowering sky. And her mother was happy when she could not see the sea.
Later in life she could remember no summer on that northern coast, but summer must have come and gone, five times in fact, when her mother took her to Portugal. They had to fly there and then travel a whole day in a bus. Jennifer was sick a number of times, but because of her mother's excitement she was able to rise above her lurching entrails and the awful quivering, quenching heat. 'Rise above it.' She had heard her father shout this at her mother when she herself was tucked up in bed, had been asleep even in the warm alcove by the chimney breast above the oven. In the darkness she imagined her mother floating and lost as a seagull over the icy whelm of ocean and she clenched her fists tight and prayed for her, as if she were one of the lifeboatmen or fishermen who went in peril on the sea.
Now the bus was bumping off the white dusty track into a village square; her mother had seized both her limp hands and was squeezing them and staring into her face with wild shining eyes. 'I am happy. I am so happy,' she whispered. They hugged each other. Jennifer was glad for her, but most of all she was glad to clamber off the bus and stand unsteadily in the shade, while a great shrieking gaggle of women in black flapping clothes embraced her mother and wept and embraced her again. Then they were swooping down on Jennifer. 'Ah, the little beautiful.' 'Ah, it is at last Ginevra.' The tree's low branches trembled and its leaves which were like hands waved and fanned the hot air. Fat little purple fruits plopped through them and burst in carnal crimson against the ground. The aunts trampled over them. Seeds spurted and stuck to their heavy black shoes.
The castle stood on a headland up a long hill from the village; you could not see it until you were almost there. Parts of it resembled the massive fortresses Jennifer had seen in picture books; elsewhere it was dazzling white, like some of the houses in the village. There were arcades and galleries, courtyards and fountains. Most of the fountains didn't work. Lizards basked in the stone basins and thin cats pounced and played among the fallen leaves which choked them. Jennifer lay in a canopied swing in her grandmother's special courtyard, high above a little bay and the sea which was so bright she could not look straight at it. Here water played gently from an upturned urn on to a splashing cherub and behind her she could hear women's voices, a continuing murmurousness from upstairs windows, half shuttered now against the morning light. That was what they did all day, her mother, her grandmother, her aunts. They talked and they sipped iced tea and they laughed in that shadowed room as they sat over their embroidery. Aunt Rosa was going to have a baby, perhaps tomorrow, perhaps this very day, who knew? Each evening Uncle Adriano came back from his work in his pale, crumpled suit, looking excited, and they would all smile and shake their heads. Her grandmother said: 'A baby chooses his own time. Is that not so, Ginevra?'
Jennifer had no idea how babies made their plans, but she nodded fervently, for her grandmother was the wise person, the queen of the castle; even though she was smaller than any of them and wore very plain clothes. There were a number of other older people about, mostly her grandmother's sisters or sisters-in-law. They were all widows and they looked frightening when they sat out together on the courtyard terrace, a flock of birds of anguish, although they smiled at her and stroked her hair as she sidled past. The only young aunt was Aunt Jezebel who was eighteen. Her name wasn't really Jezebel but this was how it sounded to Jennifer. Jezebel spent all day with the other women in the cool upstairs chambers or on the terrace, but she was not paying attention to them. Her round dreamy eyes stared out over the ramparts, her heavy brows contracted and her mouth turned down. She did not want to be there; not one bit. She shredded eucalyptus leaves and ground them under her heel; she moved about in an aura of camphor. This gave Jennifer a pang of wintry longing, for it reminded her of having colds in Cromer. She thought she liked Portugal, but it was very bright and it wasn't home. Soon her father was coming, and she looked forward to that, although she had the feeling that her mother did not. She had heard her mother referring to Cromer as Cromer Sur Mer and there was something not quite right about this.
Jezebel took Jennifer to the village to meet her father off the bus. They rode down the hill on Jezebel's bicycle, with Jennifer sitting in a pannier on the back. Jezebel was happy; she sang loud melancholy songs as they went, trailing her foot round the bends instead of braking, so that the dust blew up into their faces. In the square she left Jennifer at a table under the fig trees and disappeared into the bar. By the time the bus at last came throbbing in, Jennifer was feeling very hot and very embarrassed. She did not like to sit all alone as though she were a friendless orphan; people stared at her and some children came up and spoke to her but she could not answer them and after a little they ran off, looking back at her and giggling.
Suddenly Jezebel was leaning over her, lifting her up, pretending to be a loving aunt, and there was her father and there was a woman walking beside her father; he did not look well. His eyes glittered but his face was white. The woman was jauntily swinging a bottle by its neck. When she saw Jennifer looking at it, she stuffed it into her handbag. Her cheeks were puffy and pallid like fermenting dough; her bobbed blond hair was streaked with damp. There were subdued hugs and handshakes. Jennifer's father said the woman's name was Amicia; they were fellow travellers. He laughed after he said this, but no one else did. Jezebel had stopped looking happy and was glaring at Amicia. 'Well, I guess I'll love you and leave you,' she announced. 'See you later alligators,' she added over her shoulder. They watched in silence as her high heels wobbled across the square to the pale green portico of the little hotel. A group of men had emerged from the bar and were watching her too. A cat with a lizard protruding from its jaws slunk round the wall of the well, snarling to itself. It looked as if it were smoking a cigar. Jennifer longed to be back in Cromer.
At lunch, in the shuttered upper room, her longing increased. Her father had been odd and quiet in the taxi from the village. 'Not feeling too good; it's the heat,' he said, sighing and mopping his forehead. He had to borrow clothes from Adriano; his own were far too heavy. There wasn't much conversation. Usually the women spoke simultaneously and incessantly, sometimes in English, more often in Portuguese, even at times in French, for one of the great aunts came from Normandy. Although her mother had seemed pleased when he arrived, now, sitting next to him at the long table, she turned the other way, towards her own mother, and engaged in a discussion of embroidery silks suitable for the dress she was making for Rosa's baby. Nor was her father enjoying his plate of salt cod. He was pushing it around, nonplussed, trying to hide the glimmering and rigid fish tails under his potatoes. From high above the Virgin Mary eyed him with displeasure.
Things seemed better the next day. Colour returned to her father's face and although the sun shone bright as ever a breeze diffused the heat. In the evening there was a party in the village square. The tables were laid out in the open and everyone danced, even the old people. In one corner bumper cars were flashing and colliding, and merry-go-round horses rose and sank and rose. The air boomed with different kinds of music and was hazy with smoke from the spits of tragic roasting piglets. Candles and bottles shone on the white tablecloths. Amicia appeared, weaving through the dancers, and joined them. She wore scarlet lipstick and she had an orange flower in her hair. She was drinking out of her own bottle, not very carefully. Pungent amber drops trickled down her chin and on to her throat. She flicked them away with a faintly grubby hand, shook her blonde hair about and pulled off her jacket. The ancient aunts sighed and looked away from her. They had smiled at her and inclined their heads. They would not do this again. At the far end of the table Grandmama's face was expressionless. Only Jezebel stared unwinkingly at those twin rotundities which heaved and quivered beyond the merest strand of black and yellow dotted nylon. Only Jezebel and the men. The men who came swarming, touching Amicia's bare arm, entreating her to dance, pulling at her hands. They surrounded her, black as flies in their shiny suits. As Jennifer and her family left the square they could see her spinning about, still clutching her bottle, while the men formed a circle round her, clapping slowly, a measured clap like the beat of a funeral drum.
The old aunts went home then, but Grandmama led the rest of them down the cliff path to her terrace, a vast ledge overhanging the bay. The tide was full and tranced in the moonlight, almost inaudibly lapping and swelling far below. A surprise awaited them, a table laid out with plates of lobsters and salads, apricots and wine and iced lemonade. Adriano had brought his wind-up gramophone and for a while they sat and watched the sea and the moving heavens, and listened to a woman's voice in lamentation. 'Remember me. Remember me,' she pleaded, and Jennifer saw that the clouds and the moon were still and the whole night silenced, attentive only to that desperate cry. Then Jezebel was on her feet, changing the record, winding. 'We will dance,' she declared. She stretched out her hands to Jennifer's father, but he shook his head and sat back with his shy smile, clasping his glass of wine. Jezebel revolved slowly, furling and whirling her petticoats, staring now at the sea, now at the dark hillside, half angry, half yearning. Jennifer's mother pulled her and Grandmama up. They danced in a circle; their linked hands formed a grave and tender coronal of love. Jennifer forgot everything but this place, wished only to be here for ever. Rosa and Adriano were dancing too, very slowly; she could see that Adriano was afraid of colliding with Rosa's huge stomach. Rosa rocked from side to side and Adriano held her at arm's length as though she were some unmanageable agricultural implement. Their shadows all mingled, separated, flowed, pacific as clouds.
And then there were other shadows, an alien blot which spread into the centre of the terrace. Amicia was there, and she was wrapped about a man. At least she had her jacket on again. But the man was Jennifer's father. She saw Amicia's face sagged against his, her red mouth smudging his collar. She saw Adriano gaze wistfully at them and Aunt Rosa looking savagely at Adriano. For a moment as they whirled round she saw her father as she had never seen him, a small man, sly, afraid and greedy. Then the music stopped, the dance was over. Amicia lurched to the table. The feral cats were scrabbling among the lobsters. 'Fucking bloody cats,' she yelled. 'Disgusting. Where's the music?' No one answered. She saw the gramophone. 'Aw, for Godsake. Come on then, I'll give you some music.' She grabbed a whole lobster and flung her jacket at the cats. Moving backwards she wrenched at the claws. The wilted orange flower fell out of her hair. She cradled the lobster to her bosom and began to sing, 'I can can and you can can, I can can . . .' She kicked her legs up in the air and fell over. The feral cats were on her. She struggled to her feet, kicked a cat and fell again. She rolled on her back, still singing, rolled on to her side and went over the edge.
'Time to go home,' said Grandmama. They cleared the table into baskets. Jennifer threw Amicia's flower into the sea. It looked quite pretty bobbing there. 'Remember me,' she thought. She would not. But she would remember the dance. She split a lobster pincer with one crack of her teeth and made her pledge.
From 'Writing on the Wall: Women Writers on Women Artists', published by Weidenfeld on 21 October at pounds 14.99. The exhibition opens at the Tate Gallery, London SW1, on 26 Oct
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