Read My First Colouring Book Online

Authors: Lloyd Jones

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My First Colouring Book (10 page)

BOOK: My First Colouring Book
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Morgan watched her now, in the conservatory, waking up slowly. The profile was still there, though more etched of course, with deep lines fingernailed into the clay of her face. She stood up slowly, patted down her hair and her clothes, then took their cups away, chinking all the way back to the kitchen. He fell back into his reverie on dimensions and intersections.

The next time they'd met was at her home. A senior reporter by now, he'd been sent to another sloping terrace on another sloping hill because she'd done something remarkable enough for the rather stuffy newspaper he worked for to take notice: she'd qualified as an architect – the region's only female architect, astounding everyone around her, especially the men in suits (himself included). They'd sat in her mother's immaculate front room, on either side of the household's best oak table, every doily in its allocated place, and an aspidistra plant between them, so that she'd had to move it – thus ruining her mother's elaborate arrangements.

It's the same plant, she said with a smile. The one in the office.

He studied it dutifully, a quarter of cucumber sandwich poised in his curled right hand, hovering over a white china plate – curiously shaped, square with cut-off corners – in his left hand. No crumbs yet. The cucumber reminded him of the aroma in old Tom's gunmetal tin, but that was a coincidence, surely. She was talking to him, he watched her mouth move, fascinated by the slender shadow under her lower lip. What was she saying? The plant – ah yes, she'd taken it with her from the windowsill in the office – a killing field for plants – and replaced it with another, more adaptable bit of office vegetation: a cactus. He hadn't even noticed.

It transpired that she'd grown attached to the aspidistra, and he could see – in between nibbles of cucumber sandwiches and then home-made chocolate cake – that it had thrived in its new home. He inquired about the cake. She'd made it herself, and by golly it was delicious. He complemented her on her many talents – he meant it, he was really quite impressed, as he told his mother quietly in the kitchen back home. During that hour in the front room Mags had relaxed in her chair, allowing him to admire her openly. She'd seemed friendlier, warmer and more open. He could see more of her, physically, than he'd been able to in the office when they worked together – her typewriter had blocked most of the view – and now he was forced to avert his eyes from the swell of her bust in her Sunday best, a scalloped Irish linen blouse. As they chatted after the interview, which went well, he tried to memorise the dynamics of the room: its planes and focal points, its radii and tangents. At home, later, sleepy and charmed, he'd made another map, this time a rough-out on foolscap paper. Again, she'd sat just outside a line in the nexus of connections.
But they'd sat easily together, and there had been a gentle rapport, he thought. He was puzzled. In his mind's eye he went over the meeting again, dissecting the scene: her stance, her posture, and her position in relation to his own body in that room. Had she been closer, physically, was that it? But his mental arithmetic discounted the possibility. She had seemed closer – perhaps his response had been more subjective and emotional. A subtle angling of their bodies, perhaps, had synchronised their orbits.

He closed his eyes in the conservatory and slipped into a daydream. When he opened them again Mags was standing in the doorway, and he looked at her again in the way that old people do, as if she were a marble statue. She was a half-shadow in the doorway, hands on hips, her trademark stance. She seemed to be disappearing into the shadow – and the stoop he'd noticed recently, was it getting worse? She asked him a question.

No, he didn't want any supper yet. The blanket was overheating his knees, he noticed, so he took it off laboriously, folded it unevenly, and draped it over the arm of his chair. She tutted, but left him alone to his thoughts. She was baking a cake, he could smell it. Chocolate. Her tour de force, feted by her friends at the Townswomen's Guild, and all those other societies she belonged to, in which the sisterhood filled the hours – like spare rooms – with junk and said to each other wordlessly,
let's not give up hope just yet
. To every person God gave a special gift, and Mags made divine chocolate cakes. A strange gift to receive through heavenly providence, he thought. He never touched so much as a crumb now. The consequences were too dire.

They'd met again, only days after the interview in her mother's front parlour, which on reflection had more of the royal levee about it than a simple act of courtship. Morgan closed his eyes and rested his head on the back of his chair. He could remember the phone call almost word for word: his shyness mingled with excitement, his fearfulness and stammering. He'd asked to see her again, to clear up a few things, but it was a ruse, they'd both known that. They met in the tea rooms at the top end of town, near the funicular railway which took tourists to the top of the limestone cliffs. He was in his best suit again, his only suit, a bit shiny around the bottom but she said nothing as of yet. She was dressed quite racily, he thought, in a pencil skirt and a flimsy peach blouse: he could see her bra straps, but he said nothing as of yet. A little black hat and crimson lipstick… by god she was a looker, gathering admiration from all around; he was puffed with pride as he sat beside her on his slightly shiny bottom.

He'd worn his rugby club tie – not a player but a good secretary, vital role really – and he'd tried to impress her with his knowledge of words: his special gift from the man above. After all he was well on the way to becoming an intellectual, and he read poetry before going to sleep, though only socially approved material, Dylan Thomas and RS Thomas, no outlandish stuff. What was the connection between
, he'd asked her as they drank their Lapsang Souchong. He'd pointed towards the railway, for some unfathomable reason. Amazingly, she knew. A funambulist was a tightrope walker, and
was Latin for rope. He was visibly astonished.

Then she'd poked fun at him and he'd blushed. The women around them all noticed him blush, and he blushed again. But the meeting went well, and by the end they both knew that something was on the cards. Her shapeliness and intelligence did it for him. And as for her? Oh, there was his boyish interest in everything around him, and his blushes perhaps. What with nobody much else on the scene and time running against her she might as well get it over and done with – she agreed with her mother on that. Her parents' marriage had been sturdy and strong like a cast iron stove but there hadn't been much love or finesse. Mags and Morgan might be lucky, and it was all down to luck in the end, wasn't it? Look at all those arranged marriages in Persia or wherever, the success rate was round about the same.

Within a year they were married.

Often afterwards, in the first flush of love, he'd made a mental
map of the tea rooms and tried to correlate all the planes and parabolas. Mankind so loved patterns, he thought. Circles and cones, checks and diamonds. In the tea rooms their bodies seemed to sit in harmony, as if they were celestial bodies reaching a perfect Pythagorean pitch. Perhaps that's all love was, really – a geometric formula based on the distance between two bodies at any given time, a day when patterns met and matched, melding a marriage of shapes which pleased all around.

Mags was in the doorway again, almost completely in shadow now. Was there anything he wanted?

He sat for a while, watching the building's shapes fade into dusk. There was nothing he wanted. Only his youth again, a big soft bed and an hour or two for dalliance. For astonishingly, unexpectedly perhaps, their physical union had been an unqualified success, on both sides of the bed. Nights of tumultuous, unending sex. Years of consummation, shared orgasms, relaxing cigarettes passed from hand to hand; he could remember the taste of her lipstick on the filters. Yes, their sex life had been top drawer. The stuff of dreams. It had saved their marriage on more than one occasion.

As she left him he opened a book but put it down quickly; almost all his concentration had gone, dissipated with the years, along with all his energy. Drifting off to sleep again, he thought of their life together – their homes, their children, their fading hopes. Because their mental patterns had never really matched. That day in the tea rooms he had sought to impose a pattern, to connect the lines and intersect the radii, but he'd had to admit it later, at first to himself and later to others, their marriage had never been more, really, than a physical palliative to both of them. He'd shuffled the Morgan shape and the Mags shape all around like a pattern-maker, but they had never truly matched, except between the sheets – and that was good and certainly important but it wasn't quite enough, not over a lifetime. He was tired of thinking these thoughts over and over to himself. Should he tell her? But she already knew, surely. What was the point of an autopsy?

As he drifted off again, Morgan thought about the chapel and its neat little cemetery, yews and graves in tidy rows. Because there was one decision outstanding: when he'd suggested – as was natural – a joint grave she'd gone strangely quiet.

Let's talk about that another day, Morgan, she'd said.

Whoever lived longest, it seemed, would decide on the final pattern.

In the conservatory all shapes and lines faded into darkness as he snoozed in the company of an old but tumultuous aspidistra plant. The smell of chocolate pervaded the whole building. And his final thought as he drifted away was that his very first map of their relationship, drawn on graph paper, had put that plant in a perfect isosceles triangle between him and Mags as they sat in an old newspaper office at the top of the stairs, the only room in the world for him then, when he was young and ready for love… so many years ago.


MY Great Aunt Mary died recently.

She was a mountain dweller – and a sizeable mound in her own right, a formidable matriarch who wore a hefty Paisley-patterned apron and Wellington boots for six days of the week (we thought she slept standing in them, at the kitchen sink) and a black coat plus floral hat on the seventh. The hat was a statement, never to be understood by mortal man.

Like most farmers' wives of old she had never been seen eating, but spent almost all her life preparing food for an extended family of bipeds and quadrupeds: she didn't seem to care much who got what; I wouldn't have been greatly surprised to see a lamb at the dinner table and a greedy child nuzzling a bottleful of milk in the yard.

I can see her now, waddling towards me across the farmyard, carrying two large pails of pigswill, making one of those ancient noises used on farms to call the animals; experts say these
noises are probably the oldest in the human repertoire. On workdays she wore a headscarf which accentuated her chubby red cheeks, and the plentiful hairs on her chin seemed as natural as her husband's. Standing in the kitchen with an industrial-sized rolling pin at the ready, her heavy apron held together with a broad leather belt, she had the air of a tired and greying Bedivere or Gawain girt ready for the Battle of Camlan.
She smelt chaotically of bacon, soap, beef, custard, suet, manure, flour, iron, blood, hay, toffee, udders, mothballs, bibles, babies, hen-huts and butterchurns. To be frank, the apron was a large rustic corset which – like an African dictator – tyrannised a small country of flesh and held in thrall a continent of smells. It was hardly surprising that she was surrounded almost always by a ring of open mouths, as if she were a bird with her chicks at the nest. Out in the yard she was immediately surrounded by concentric rings of animals: pet lambs, calves, hens and children, all waiting to be fed with soft brown eyes full of love and gastronomic expectation.

Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine that Great Aunt Mary – who'd sown, weeded, reaped, washed, prepared, cooked and served up more food than all our celebrity chefs put together – had a dark secret. My first intimation of it came at the wake, when my Uncle Dafydd, himself a spindle of a man (bachelor, raconteur, expert wielder of crook and billhook) made a comment about the size of the coffin in relation to the size of the little girl who had very nearly starved herself to death in the distant past. I barely registered his words, but they returned to me when I received a dusty, battered case – a Victorian portmanteau – containing Mary's personal documents. The job of sorting them was allocated to me partly because no-one else wanted to do it, partly because I had just finished my A-levels and had a whole week in which to kick my heels, between the final exam and shearing day. Since we lived in the hills there was no town to paint red, nor did I have any tiles to spend the night on, except in the dairy, so I knuckled down to the task every evening, after the daily chores. As I did so a year in the late adolescence of a young girl came sketchily to life, but only after I'd sorted the paperwork into piles: letters, newspaper cuttings, certificates, postcards, and so on.

The most striking clue to her story was a newspaper cutting about Sarah Jacob, known as ‘the Welsh fasting girl'. I'd never heard of her. There were many similar tales, apparently, about young girls who survived miraculously for long periods without eating. There were magical or religious connotations. Some of them developed stigmata, but the medical profession dismissed them as frauds or hysterics. Their symptoms included paralysis and staring fits. In Mary's childhood, women were encouraged to nibble daintily on the rare occasions they ate in public, said the article. And to have a ‘clean' body (inside and out) the fasting girls controlled their food intake rigorously to increase their ‘spirituality'.

BOOK: My First Colouring Book
4.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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