Authors: Josephine Hart
Tags: #ebook, #book
To Maurice Saatchi, again
There are many ways to have a deprived childhood. One of them is to be too lucky. This knowledge, time's present, comes slowly. They say the veil that hides the future from us was woven by an angel of mercy. But what blinds us to our unpredictable past? Why are we hooded as we search amongst its ruins, trapped in the intricate web of motive and action? Novelists of our own lives, making ourselves up from bits of other people, using the dead and living to tell our tale, we tell tales. This is a taleâfragments from a life. From lives. Particularly mine. And hers.
I never knew her really.
I came closest to her through her husband, the man with whom I now live. And through her son, whose name was Stephen.
And through the lie.
There were some, not many, whose world it was natural for me to enter, searching for a secret knowledge of her. And others, peripheral figures, on the outer edges of whose lives I waited, silent, hooded. Hoping to trap some fleeting image that would light my path to her. Whenever I lost her, I slipped under the dark waters of my own life, tracing, from beneath the gloomy waves, the faint white glimmer of her soul. And when she hid from me, I sought her out. For I knew she hid only for advantage later. Subtle, secret, opaque, I would crush her yet.
Though she wounded me beyond pain, I too inflicted deep hurt. Not born to murder her, still I sought to break her. With a small silver hammer of exquisite design, I would seek the exact point at which even the gentlest pressure would smash the glass. And her substance would be mine.
Sometimes, it is in the split-second half decision we nearly didn't make that we stumble by chance into ecstasy, or despair. But chance did not bring her into my life. By grand design she waited for me. In my own home. She was my mother's first child. Though not her firstborn. A terrible injustice to me.
Her name was Elizabeth Ashbridge. And I even envied her that.
“There's something fluttering in my room. Black. Mama, Mama. Something black in my room. Black. With wings. Mama. Mama. Where are you, Mama? Oh please, Mama. Come. Mama. Please. Please. It will land on my face.”
I stumble to the door. I cannot reach the light switch. I am too small.
“Mama, I can't â¦ . Mama. Mama.”
Down the dark corridor. Black.
“Mama. It's coming after me. Oh, Mama. Where are you, Mama?”
I must be near the back stairs. I stretch my arms â¦ toes flexed. And still I cannot reach the light. Slowly, rail by rail, I cling to the banisters. And step by step descend into a further darkness.
The back hall is so narrow. Arms outstretched, I can touch the walls. Wet face â¦ stinging thighs â¦ little drops of fear and shame.
I stumble onward.
“Mama. Mama.” I call towards the blessed light.
Her voice, singing softly to the sound of the radio in the background, floats towards me. At last I push the door. Out of the darkness into the light.
And they turn towards me. They are bathed in the light. A perfect trinity. My mother, brush in hand, is seated behind the kneeling Elizabeth. Her golden hair is spread out and down her back. A halo of light. My father, opposite Elizabeth, is bending, almost kneeling, arms outstretched, holding her cocoa.
Perfect happiness. Complete happiness. And I am outside the circle. My mother runs to me. She gathers me in her arms as Elizabeth calls: “Ruth, poor Ruth. You're crying.”
My father rises to me, whispering: “Darling Ruth. Darling child. What is it? Oh, you must have come down the back stairs alone in the dark. You poor child.”
And they kiss me. They pet me. They hold me. And they try to soothe me.
I am given Elizabeth's cocoa. And Elizabeth kisses me. On my legs.
“Poor, poor Ruth,” she whispers.
I start to cry again. Tears of hatred fall on Elizabeth's head. Onto the golden hair. Then she turns her face up to me. I bend towards her. I brush my face across hers. And a tear drops into her mouth.
Does it sting, Elizabeth? Does it sting?
I am taken up to bed again. Through the main hall, lighted on my way. My mother is cooing as my father now carries me to my room. A searchâoh, so thoroughâreveals no fluttering object. Just a mobile, half-disconnected from its hook. My father sits with me and strokes my hair, my mother sings her soft song. And I drift off into sleep.
A vision has been burnt into me, a vision of heaven. In darkness, I gaze at the light. The light in which I should have bathed alone.
I believe now that I was exposed too early to goodness and that I never recovered.
Trapped in the fierce grasp of Elizabeth's kindness, aware constantly of the truthfulness of her gaze, I suffocated on the high thinness of the air around her. The corrosive power of her generosity killed, as they rose in me, my own small instincts towards goodness.
It seemed to me that I came wrapped in a caul of darkness and anger into Elizabeth's kingdom. For it was her kingdom. Given to her out of love and pity.
Orphaned at only nine months, she was the child of my mother's sister, Astrid, and of Oliver Ord Ashbridge, young, married lovers killed in a car crash. Elizabeth was taken to Lexington. Its old walls wove a stone sanctuary round her, and its famous gardens and lake gave to all her freedoms a restricted, formal beauty. So she lived in Lexington, loved and cherished, a daughter for my parents. Before me.
Except, I was their only daughter. A blood right. One they had taken from me.
No one was to blame. They had done what was right and good. They had given a home to Elizabeth. My home. And left me with the pain of something irretrievable, lost.
I would be forever, falsely the second. Not only the second, but one of a pair: less valuable without the other.
My mother and father were oblivious to the effect on me of their careful, equal love. On my mind's eye they painted pictures for me. Of love and gentleness. Pictures that I came to hate: my mother sighing during the careful plaiting of Elizabeth's long, blond hairâwhich took more time than the vigorous brushing of my short, black curls. “There is a solution, Mama,” I wanted to cry. “Cut Elizabeth's hair. Throw it away. Burn it.” But I said nothing. For in those days I learned patience. Slow, hidden patience.
My father, kneeling again, before Elizabeth, as she sat sobbing on her bed, on the day she left for boarding school. Patting her hand to comfort her and whispering, “Oh, my golden girl. My golden light.”
Stop painting these pictures for me, my heart cried. Stop. “You've never knelt to me, Papa. You've never knelt to me. She's not yours, Papa. She's not yours.”
They didn't stop.
Still I see the sad way they gazed at me in the week after she leftâwhen I copied little things I'd seen her do, that had elicited praise. And I hear them sighing, “Ah, you miss her too, Ruth. I know, my dear. I know.”
I see my mother, seated in front of the headmistress's desk, pleading with her to put us in the same houseâa practice normally frowned upon at the school. “It's essential to keep them close. Less lonely, for Ruth, who depends on Elizabeth so.”
Two girls made my parents happy. Elizabeth and Ruth, the one following the other, made the magic.
A magic that Elizabeth created. Encouraged when small to follow the sweetness of her behaviourâto imitate her many acts of generosity, to note her kindnessâI followed in cold envy the path she laid before me through the years. Like Satan before the Fall, I came to hate the very nature of goodness, to fear its power.
But during childhood I lacked the courage for rebellion. So I went underground. To search for secret ways to be. And secret ways to lessen her.
Sometimes, as directed, I took her behaviour. And copied it. Then â¦ her things. And hid them. Childish things for childish times. Her mug, the one with the red rabbits. Her favourite doll. The rag dog with the yellow mouth. Ribbons. I smiled to watch her search for them. And once to see her weep. For the doll.
I used her smile. Sometimes. It didn't suit.
Later, as adolescence stole upon us at our boarding school, I built a different, though still small, collection. Underwear. Hair slides. Stockings. Insignificant items. Rarely used, always in secret.
In those years of fierce discovery sometimes I would reach for myself and sigh. And often bank it down for a later conflagration.
And so it all began in small ways. Maybe it always does. Small thefts. Little meannesses. Malicious pleasures. Minor cruelties.
But what if I had been there before Elizabeth? What if I had been born first? Would she have been â¦ like me? What if Seth, the third son after Cain and Abel, had been firstborn? What if the Lord had been pleased by Cain's gift? Would Cain ever have disturbed the sleeping monster in himself?
I chose my habit. I had, you understand, no grand schemes. For I was not ambitious. I did not need public applause. I was spiritual by nature. A spiritual, malevolent creature. There are, I believe, many of us about.
I was never promiscuous. I chose my lovers with intelligence and, I believe, some originality. Though my victims were players on a board of my design, even my arbitrary, predatory swoops were accomplished with some artistry.
I am beautiful. A statement of fact. A statement of power. I have dark hair and sallow, almost poreless skin. My deep-set brown eyes slant slightly upwards. My eyebrowsâand this is much commented uponâdo not arch, but seem to wing themselves across my brow. My nose is long, narrow and straight. My mouth is strong, and even without lipstick my lips are red. It is a face in which the regularity of my features is made slightly exotic by the intensity of my colouring. “She's a di Malta,” my mother had often commentedâreferring to my father's Italian mother. I am of above average height, in fact only slightly less tall than Elizabeth. I have, however, a voluptuous figure.
Physically, therefore, I was well equipped for the arena. But, most crucially for my future success, I had what amounted to genius in my deep knowingness of the beat, of the pounding rhythm of desire.
As a young woman I had, of course, a different assemblage of Elizabeth's things. A small collection. Silk underwear now. Hair adornments, two of them gold. Lipstick. Shoes, high heeled, black. Other insignificant items. I still used them rarely, and still always in secret.
After Oxford, where I read English, I joined a small book publishing house as an editorial assistant. I progressed steadily, as careful in hiding my wealth as I was subtle in the deployment of my beauty.
Like all truly beautiful women I dressed with extreme simplicity. I was aware that to emphasise for dramatic effect my already exotic colouring, or to shape clothes around the full curves of my body, would be to court vulgarity. Also it would rob me of the element of surprise, and undermine the precepts of stealth which are so essential to the successful disarming of prey.
I had a small wardrobe of simple, elegant dressesâusually navy or white in the summer, and a soft cream (to which I am rather attached) and black in the winter, occasionally lifted by a touch of red. My accessories were extremely expensive and always in perfect condition. But the classic nature of their design, and the comparative dullness of their colour, deflected attention from the fact that my handbags, for example, could cost over a month's salary.